The UK has always has a very detached view of its position in Europe. We say we are going "to Europe" instead of going to the continent. For much of our history our foreign policy was based on a splendid isolation where we were content to play off the various continental powers against each other. Meanwhile we busied ourselves with creating a global empire everywhere except in Europe. With this history, it is not surprising that we view any attempt by European powers to ally amongst themselves in order to grow stronger with something very close to fear. The threats to Britain came from Europe, while our English speaking allies against such threats were even more than comrades, they were blood relatives.
However, Britain, in the words of Dean Acheson, "Lost an Empire and did not find a role".
Now it is time for us to put forward a vision of our country's place in the world. Our alliance with the USA is not making our country any safer. Indeed our craven vision of it has dragged our country into an unnecessary war- about the worst thing that any government can do.
Despite the sacrifices that we have made, Britain is taken for granted by the USA and by the wider world- and being Mr. Bush's poodle has made us much weaker.
It is time for a fundamental reappraisal of the British role in the world. We must not weaken our security by damaging NATO, but we should feel free to establish a more independent line. Britain is not in alliance with Israel, and we should feel free to criticize their attacks on Lebanon as an injustice to the Lebanese people and a danger to Israel itself. We should condemn utterly Camp X-Ray at Gunaatanamo Bay- a scandalous crime. We should take issue with the role of China in Asia, especially Tibet, and in particular we should speak out against their appalling record on human rights. We should support the Central European democracies when the Russians make economic attacks against them.
However, the elephant in the living room is Europe.
As I write this from the old town of Tallinn, I am very conscious of the generally positive view that officials here have of the UK, but the constant refrain is that the British role in the EU is disorganised and disruptive. Britain's rulers continue to regard the European Union as a temporary irrelevance which will probably collapse anyway. This is intellectually lazy to the point of actual stupidity. The European Union is not and can not be simply a free trade area, as if this this is separate from the political dimension. Any level of cooperation will require political institutions, and for more than fifty years this is what the EU and its precedessor groups provided. The most important single position for British foreign policy must now be to make up our minds about what role we should take in the European Union. The fact that the most Conservatives genuinely believe that we would be "better off out" is a logical position, but not one that I can share. We a culturally and economically a European state. Our most important interests lie in Europe and not in Asia or America. However much they may want to make it so, the Conservatives can not anchor the UK off Nantucket. Whatever we do, we must accept that we will always have a very close relationship with the other European powers, and the Union that they have created.
In fact for much of the last twenty years much of the intellectual energy behind the key European reforms- not least the single European market- has come from British ideas. Imagine how much stronger we might have been if we had actually positively engaged with the EU, instead of being so negative. The time has come to put forward a positive agenda to take this Union of which we form part into a more open future.