Curl up in the warm cocoon of optimism and defensiveness being spun by Downing Street before G20 leaders convene next week in London, and quite soon you will feel a chill draught. The British are doing their utmost to save the world; they are best friends again with Washington, and most of the rest of the world is on their side. If only those pesky Europeans would see reason.
There are echoes here of the arguments from 10 years ago. British ministers, including – let us not forget – the then Chancellor Gordon Brown, regularly lambasted the French and Germans for not doing enough to encourage entrepreneurship or consumer spending. The point now is that, if the results of the London summit fall short of British ambitions, it is the Europeans, with their refusal to join the supposedly enlightened consensus, who will be made the fall-guys. Familiarity will only make the accusations more persuasive.
If you dare, however, it is worth stepping outside the small world of British comfort-speak, and just listening. You will very quickly find – as I did, at a weekend meeting of EU politicians and others – that for many of those supposedly stubborn and suspect Europeans, it is the British who are out of line. And the strength of feeling runs deep. The Europeans have no intention of being bounced into signing up to Britain's optimum global rescue plan by threats of subsequent isolation; nor are they in a mood to drift silently and gracefully away.
Their misgivings are threefold. The first, and most immediate, relate to policy. The German and French governments adamantly oppose any international fiscal stimulus; they insist they have done enough to lubricate their own economies and want to wait to let the measures take effect.
They worry about unleashing inflation – the same argument used a little half-heartedly by those in Britain opposed to increasing the money supply. If there is money to be contributed, the Europeans want to use existing institutions, such as the IMF – or, in the case of the ailing "new" European economies, EU mechanisms such as the European Central Bank.
It looks unlikely the Europeans will shift far here. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, for one, has dug her heels in. What is more, Britain's former divide-and-rule approach, which pitted "old" Europe against "new" will not work. This time Germany and France have allies in the eurozone and beyond. The ECB is on their side, but so too is the World Bank, whose President, Robert Zoellick, has warned that any more stimulus would provoke a "sugar-high" and further crashes.
The Europeans' second reason for hostility goes back to those lectures the British used to deliver about glorious growth and sinful "stagnation". In public, "old" Europe's ministers have shown forbearance far beyond the call of duty, given that their more statist models look increasingly like the way of the future.
But this does not mean that those sermons do not rankle still, or that Mr Brown's talk of a "global" crisis has absolved Britain in their eyes from responsibility. They blame the US as well, but with Barack Obama's new administration pursuing quite a different economic policy, the focus is on the British, who seem to our Continental friends not to have understood the error of their ways. This leads directly to the third, and most deep-rooted cause, of ill-feeling. They see in the whole British approach an arrogance quite insufferable, given Britain's role in what has happened and its abiding ambivalence towards the EU. They see it not just in our politicians, but still more in our diplomats and in the Foreign Secretary personally, for whose off-hand and didactic manner particular venom is reserved.
They go on to cite two specific objections. London, they say, strove to be the global financial centre, without the national tax base to honour its international obligations. That the G20 summit will be held within sight of the bank towers of London's Docklands is an added irritation. As for anti-protectionism – the reserve summit theme if no international stimulus is agreed – they retort: What is the recent 30 per cent fall in sterling, if not protectionism by competitive devaluation?
So when the summit is presented as successful, as it surely will be, two questions would not come amiss. How much more successful might it have been, had Britain evinced a more European spirit over the years? And what did the visitors say about us when they got home?Reuse content