Since1973, British governments have been trying, and largely failing, to persuade British people to regard the European project with sentiments other than indifference and contempt. Turnout in European elections in the UK is abysmal – less than 35 per cent in 2009. Few are the Britons who know, or care, who their EU representative is. And just as no sane pro-EU government of the UK would call a referendum on euro membership – because they’d lose – so the recently unloaded Labour government of Gordon Brown had to bounce the country into the Lisbon Treaty without asking its electors.
Could it be that UK governments have just been looking for allies in the wrong parts of the European continent? This week, Downing Street hosts the first UK/Baltic/Nordic Summit – a gathering of heads of government from the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with delegations of business leaders, entrepreneurs and thinktank boffins.
Downing Street sources emphasise that it’s an informal conclave, more of a forum than a summit. The line is that this is a gathering of countries with shared interests and common challenges.
It’s not an implausible proposition. The UK shapes up quite well as a Scandinavian nation. It has remained outside the euro, as has every Nordic country except Finland (Norway and Iceland, indeed, have remained outside the EU). It has no meaningful history of conflict with Scandinavia, give or take the 1970s Cod Wars with Iceland, the only casualties of which were a few dented ships.
Just at the moment, there are unmistakeable indications of political kinship. British prime minister David Cameron and Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt are clearly friends as well as allies. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, has praised Swedish schools as a model to be emulated. And every government in Europe – or so one would hope – has been studying the causes and consequences of the banking collapse endured and survived by Scandinavia in the early 1990s.
“I think,” says Nicola Clase, Sweden’s ambassador to the UK, “that there’s an increased curiosity on the part of the British government about what’s going on in Scandinavia and the Baltics.”
Sweden’s delegation will include Spotify co-founder Martin Lorentzon, economist Klas Eklund, and Vattenfall CEO Øystein Løseth, whose company recently completed the world’s biggest offshore windfarm 12 kilometres from the coast of Kent.
“Also,” says Clase, “the informality of the event is important. These are hands-on people, so it’s a chance for the policy-makers to listen to them, rather than the other way around.”
A minor motif of recent geopolitics has been the coalescing of new alliances between nations suddenly perceiving shared interests. Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) has had two actual summits, with a third planned, though Civets (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa) is yet to print its first invitations. It’s dauntingly difficult to wring a snappy anagram from Downing Street’s guests this week (although you wouldn’t struggle for attendees for a “FILL NUDES” event). It’s not hard, however, to believe that there’ll be more such gatherings.