Monday, September 30, 2013

What would a Brexit mean for EU competition policy?

The debate over Britain’s future in the EU has to date failed to highlight the threat posed to EU competition policy and enforcement, which both play a critical role in underpinning the single market. Yet a British exit from the EU could have important repercussions for competition policy.

Several dangers present themselves. The first is the risk that the ground-rules for EU competition policy could be weakened in any future treaty renegotiation without the British at the table. Secondly, even absent such an explicit renegotiation, removing Britain’s input into policy and enforcement might encourage some drift in the way existing rules are applied. Thirdly, and regardless of the possibility of renegotiation or drift, there would be heavy additional costs for both government and for business. Lastly, a British exit could harm the global dialogue between competition authorities.

The threat of a tectonic shift in competition policy if the UK left the EU cannot be ruled out. It was, after all, the UK that led the counter-attack against President Sarkozy’s attempts to demote the principle of “undistorted competition” during the 2007 negotiations that led to the Lisbon treaty. Some crafty drafting in a new protocol, added to the Treaty at Britain’s behest, somehow did enough to allow the European Commission to maintain that nothing had changed. But the Sarkozy tendency, present even before today’s economic crisis, is far from a spent force: the forces of protectionism are alive and well, in France and elsewhere. A future treaty renegotiation could witness renewed calls to promote European champions, protect strategic national industries and slacken state aid disciplines.

Even without a change in the ground rules, a British exit from the EU might still weaken EU competition policy. National competition authorities together form the European Competition Network (ECN). The ECN co-ordinates policy with the European Commission, and national authorities are consulted on individual decisions via an advisory committee. The UK is an active voice in all these fora. Over time, Britain’s absence from them would probably lead to policy drift, as other voices became more prominent in the debate. British companies active across Europe would remain subject to EU competition rules, regardless of Brexit. But the UK would have voted itself off the committee that sets and applies the rules.

A British exit from the EU would also impose instant additional costs. Since Britain would no longer be part of the one-stop shop for reviewing mergers, these would need to be separately reviewed by the UK’s future Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). This would place extra costs on businesses, as well as an increased burden on the CMA, which would need more staff (and a budget to match). The same would apply to action against cartels and cases involving abuses of dominant market positions: complainants and defendants would have to meet in an additional and unnecessary forum. Of course, the UK could, like Norway, allow the Commission in Brussels to adjudicate on its cases. But with no British officials left in the Commission, and with policy possibly veering away from the UK’s attachment to free competition, this seems unlikely.

Finally, a British exit from the EU could harm the dialogue between competition authorities. Competition laws have proliferated around the globe. When the UK joined the EEC in 1973, there were only a handful of active jurisdictions, with the US far out in the lead, both in policy thinking and in enforcement. Today’s club of anti-trust authorities, the International Competition Network (ICN), counts members from 111 countries. Chinese policy is now a major pre-occupation, with India’s new law also starting to be felt. The spreading burden of compliance should bring its own reward, with markets becoming more open and competitive around the globe. But aligning these systems is also becoming a real challenge. The EU has been a key mover in the ICN, and has long since been recognised as a twin motor of global anti-trust action and advocacy alongside the US. Indeed, in recent years the EU has been much the more vigorous enforcer of the two. But a British exit from the EU would weaken the EU’s standing in the international anti-trust dialogue, and exclude the UK from the collective clout that goes with being part of the EU. It would also deprive the US of an interlocutor within the EU camp that shares its common law heritage. Worse, if the EU falls prey to protectionism, there could be more fundamental damage to the dynamic of anti-trust enforcement around the globe.

Competition policy in Europe has always been about more than just free competition: it also serves the goal of breaking down barriers between countries. Single market legislation removes legislative barriers, and competition policy ensures that firms do not erect private barriers in their place. Believers in the single market should pause to reflect whether the UK is better on the inside of EU competition policy, or on the outside looking in.

Alec Burnside is Managing Partner in the Brussels office of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Division and indecision over Syria

The deal on chemical weapons reached by Russia and the United States marks the latest chapter in the West’s effort to stay out of Syria’s civil war. After Russia’s diplomatic initiative, a military strike has been avoided. The White House says that diplomacy backed by a credible military threat has succeeded, and European leaders claim that their appeal for a UN process was heard. Obama’s wish to avoid military solutions may have created new momentum for negotiations with Iran. But this moment of jubilation could be short-lived: a daunting task at the UN awaits; military action may still be needed; and transatlantic cohesion has been damaged.

For more than two years, US and European governments have successfully navigated developments that could otherwise have formed a casus belli and led to Western entanglement in Syria. In the summer of 2012, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish air force jet, and was accused by Ankara of lobbing mortars over the Turkish-Syrian border and staging car bombings in southern Turkish towns. The attack on a NATO member-state could have triggered military action against Syria, but instead the alliance showed restraint and sent German, Dutch and US air defence batteries to southern Turkey.

In November 2012, France and the UK – followed a month later by the US  –  stated that President Assad no longer represented the Syrian people, but no action was taken to force a change of regime. The US and Europe have also long resisted arming the rebel groups. When it became clear in early 2013 that Assad was winning, the European Union – under French and British leadership – and the United States lifted the arms embargo. But the subsequent flow of arms to rebels has been limited, reflecting concerns that the weapons might end up with Al Qaeda affiliates. The US, UK and France have been providing jeeps and communications technology, and possibly small arms, but most heavier material, mortars and anti-tank weapons, are sent by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on August 21st is the closest the US and its allies have come to military intervention in Syria. If it were not for the use of poison gas, the US and others would have remained on the side-lines, but moral imperatives and presidential credibility required action, however reluctant. European division and US foot-dragging followed.

What makes the current crisis so uncomfortable and damaging for the West is that it is largely self-inflicted; Obama’s red lines on the use of chemical weapons, when crossed, forced his hand. European divisions have made matters worse, particularly when Britain’s prime minister David Cameron – initially in favour of a strike – deferred to the House of Commons and lost, while the French president remained committed to military action. Without a united Franco-British front, Germany, the Netherlands and others continued to prevaricate and say they had not been asked to support a military strike, or – like Poland – did not have relevant military capabilities. Other European states, including Italy, Spain and Belgium, believed the UN should act. Only Denmark backed the French.

Meanwhile, more than two weeks of intense diplomacy passed before the EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton was able to forge a common European position. A carefully-worded statement agreed on September 7th said that “a clear and strong response is crucial” to the poison gas attack, but it fell short of calling for military action. Instead it urged the Security Council to push for a political solution.

A divided West was inching towards a military intervention for which there was little political appetite and even less public support. President Putin’s initiative to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons could be the ‘deus ex machina’ to avoid an unwanted military campaign.

While it is impossible to know for sure, Putin’s diplomacy may be informed by the fear that any US military involvement could decisively turn the tables on Assad. A shift in the military balance would cause Moscow to lose an ally in the region and perhaps its Mediterranean naval base, but Putin’s support for Assad is fuelled by the concern that Al Qaeda-linked groups might take over in Syria and could eventually spread to Russia.

In spite of comments by President Obama that a strike would be limited – or in Secretary Kerry’s words “unbelievably small” – any military action has unpredictable consequences. A strike was meant to ‘deter and degrade’ Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. The US was aiming for a ‘Goldilocks’ intervention; too soft, and it would only be a symbolic punishment; too hard, and it might topple Assad, strengthening jihadist rebel groups. But reality is never so straightforward, and the adversary always has a vote in a conflict. Assad could make life difficult for any US-led coalition, for instance by using chemical weapons again; placing human shields around potential targets; or using Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah to strike Western assets or Israel. US credibility would then demand further escalation. By regaining diplomatic momentum, Putin was able to protect his interests, and his client in Damascus. Whatever the outcome, Moscow will have bought time for Assad, and Russia will step up its arms shipments to Syria, hoping to tilt the military balance in favour of Assad. The US, UK and France should consider balancing this by increasing their efforts to arm moderate rebels.

The agreement between Russia and the US will have to be enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. France, the US and UK prefer a resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could allow the use of force in the event of non-compliance. But Russia has said an explicit reference to military action is unacceptable.

If the Russians stand firm, Obama will face a choice between a resolution without ‘teeth’, or circumventing the gridlocked Security Council. In the first case, the Russians and the Syrian regime will claim that UN-backed military enforcement is off the table; and Obama will be criticised by US hawks in Congress for weakness. But the outcome could be more ambiguous. During the Iraq crisis ten years ago, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1441, pushing Iraq to fulfil its disarmament obligations. It was adopted under chapter 7, but did not explicitly mention the use of force. The Security Council could pass a similar resolution now.

Washington and Moscow have an interest in agreeing a resolution because the alternatives are less palatable. But given the distance between the Russian and US positions, a face-saving compromise would leave the enforcement mechanism deliberately vague. In 2003, as Saddam Hussein continued to defy the UN weapons inspectors, this clause – and its lack of specificity – became the focus of a dispute in the Security Council. Unfortunately, a similar resolution on Syria will sow the seeds for future US-Russian disagreement. The technical obstacles associated with a verification mechanism in a war zone are plentiful, and if Syria breached the resolution, a fractured West could still end up being drawn into the conflict.

Nevertheless, if a resolution is adopted and the Syrians carry out their side of the bargain, this may do more than just prevent Syria’s future use of chemical weapons. Iran’s new moderate president, Hassan Rouhani – strengthened by a policy of US restraint in Syria – has signalled a willingness to talk to Obama. This positive momentum offers the best hope for some time to move diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme forward, and should be embraced by the US and Europe.

Progress on chemical weapons could also create some momentum for a general ceasefire and the start of a peace process. The EU ought to be able to unite around this goal, at least. It should now start working with Russia, the US, Iran as well as the groups in Syria to get the Geneva 2 negotiations underway in the hope of moving towards a political solution.

A stalemate at the UN would be damaging; Putin could say he produced an olive branch that the US was unwilling to accept, and paint Obama as a warmonger; while members of Obama’s own party and isolationist Republicans will accuse him of risking US entanglement in another war. The EU would find itself in an uncomfortable position. Fundamental to the EU’s foreign policy is support for international norms, of which the prohibition on chemical weapons is one (the 2003 EU security strategy describes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as “potentially the greatest threat to our security”) and support for the United Nations is another. These conflicting norms would ensure that Europe remained divided.

The worst option for US credibility is if a resolution is not agreed and the United States shies away from military action. Credibility is an important currency in international relations. It would be seen as a victory in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, it would sap the morale of Syria’s rebels and it would send a message that the use of chemical weapons may go unpunished. It would make Israel and Saudi Arabia uncertain about US assistance on Iran’s nuclear programme. Pyongyang’s hand would be strengthened, and among allies in the Asia-Pacific – where US security guarantees are considered crucial to check the rise of China – signs of US weakness would make leaders nervous. Western impotence in Syria will reduce America’s – and by extension the West’s – international standing, strengthening those that believe Western decline creates opportunities to expand their influence.

Deal or no deal, the crisis has negatively affected transatlantic relations. In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates complained publicly that Europe was not equitably sharing the burden of military risks and expenses. Not much has improved since then. In Libya, eight out of twenty-eight NATO allies participated in the bombing phase of the air campaign. Now an even smaller number of Europeans would stand by the US. Washington has not drawn upon NATO’s command headquarters or common surveillance assets (as happened in Libya) or even mentioned NATO. The US probably wanted to avoid bringing Europe’s division into the North Atlantic Council, where unanimous support would be needed. While much has been made of the US rebalance towards Asia and the consequent need for Europe to bear a greater burden for security in its neighbourhood, most of Europe is still passing the buck to Washington. Once again, the US and Russia get to sort out a security issue in Europe’s neighbourhood without Europe being at the table.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Continuity and change in Germany's EU policy

However the Germans vote on September 22nd, Berlin’s attitude to the EU is not going to change much. The opposition Social Democrats call for a bit less austerity in Southern Europe but otherwise support most of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies. Nonetheless German policy on Europe is evolving – independently of the elections – in some important respects.

Germany is making a new effort to revive its damaged relationship with France. It is moving towards accepting a full banking union, including a resolution regime, though not, for now, on terms acceptable to most of its partners. It is recognising – with some regret – that there will not be a significant revision of the EU treaties in the coming years. And it is increasingly critical of the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The big strategic decisions on Germany and the EU are taken by politicians like Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister, and Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, and, above all, Merkel. But the key officials in the Chancellor’s office, the foreign ministry and the finance ministry are hugely influential on EU policy. That is not surprising, given that they – unlike most politicians – understand the technicalities of the EU’s inner workings.

These officials are more relaxed about the euro than they were six months ago. They think that modest progress in Ireland, Portugal and Spain is vindicating their insistence on austerity in these countries. They regard Greece as a hopeless case, but too small to threaten the euro’s survival. Italy is a much bigger worry, because its political system seems to make structural economic reform impossible.

As for the Official Monetary Transactions (OMT) – the bond-buying scheme unveiled by the European Central Bank a year ago, which reduced the cost of borrowing for the Southern Europeans – it should be “a bazooka that is left in the cupboard”, according to one official. If ever used, the ECB’s independence could be compromised: politicians would put pressure on the bank to deploy the OMT to achieve a particular spread for a country’s bonds, he says. And what would the ECB do if, once an OMT programme had started, its beneficiary stopped reforming? This official thinks that if a country applies the right policies, as Spain has done recently, it does not need OMT. And if a country chooses the wrong policies, OMT cannot save it.

Germany’s constitutional court in Karlsruhe is due to rule on the legality of the OMT this autumn. The view in Berlin is that court is unlikely to ban the OMT outright, though it may set conditions for its use.

German officials think that France, unlike Italy, is capable of reform. But in his first year as president, President François Hollande infuriated German officials: he tried teaming up with Spain’s and Italy’s leaders to oppose Merkel at summits, and did very little to revitalise France’s economy. The Germans talked of moving ahead without France. The French found the Germans’ tone patronising.

But this summer the atmosphere between Paris and Berlin has improved a little.  The Germans understand that they cannot lead Europe on their own. They say they have learned that lecturing France will not persuade it to reform. Only if France believes that it is an equal partner of Germany’s, they think, is there a chance if it reforming. Meanwhile Hollande has not tried to manoeuvre against Merkel in the European Council since February (when he was in a minority of one over the EU budget). At the end of May, a joint Hollande-Merkel letter floated ideas such as a eurozone budget, a bank resolution regime, contracts for economic reform and a permanent president for the Eurogroup (which brings together the countries in the euro).

German officials hope that after the general election they can restart the Franco-German motor with a grand bargain. France would accept Merkel’s idea of contracts – it would have to negotiate structural reforms with the Commission – and Germany would agree to a modest eurozone budget, to reward countries that undertake painful reforms. Some Germans believe that these contracts would be the most effective means of getting France to reform. The bargain would also cover a bank resolution regime, which France is keen to see implemented. None of these steps would require treaty change.

Despite their new, softer line on France, some Germans still worry that the French will exploit Germany’s willingness – in the event of a serious crisis – to do whatever is necessary to keep it in the euro, and that they will therefore shy away from difficult reforms. France would then slowly drift into Southern Europe and Germany would find it hard to lead the EU on its own.

Banking union is currently a major bone of contention between Berlin and Paris. Schäuble wants a resolution regime with a first phase “based on effective co-ordination between national authorities; and effective fiscal backstops, also including the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) as last resort.” (see FT article by Schäuble). The Commission, however – backed by most member-states, including France – wants to run a centralised system that draws on a new resolution fund. The Germans think the Commission would not be capable of acting quickly to resolve a bank, and that, given the fund’s initial small size, they might end up having to pay to clean up others’ banks. They also argue that the Commission is abusing the treaties by using a single market article as the legal base for its proposal.

At the moment, the two camps are far apart. But German officials are convinced that the EU needs a viable resolution regime. A possible compromise, one suggests, could involve Germany accepting the Commission as the resolution authority, provided the ESM is the backstop. Germany likes the ESM because it is run by a German and it has an effective veto over its money being spent.

Many German politicians, being committed to a federal Europe, retain some affection for the Commission and the European Parliament. But the key officials have become very critical of both bodies. They say that the Parliament has too much power and is out of touch. So when it comes to the proposed ‘new’ method of choosing the Commission president – the idea is that after the 2014 European elections, the party with the most MEPs would appoint its designated candidate – German officials are wary. They fear that this method could lead to a powerful Commission-Parliament alliance against the Council of Ministers (in which Germany is a dominant force). This wariness extends to senior German politicians. Without the co-operation of Angela Merkel and her European People’s Party, MEPs may struggle to impose the president of their dreams on the European Council.

Officials complain that the Commission lacks economic expertise, that it produces too many meddlesome rules, and that it spends too much time worrying about its own power. It annoyed them recently by pushing ahead with a directive banning certain greenhouse-gas coolants that are used in Mercedes air conditioners. And they are frustrated that the Commission gave France extra time to meet the 3 per cent budget rule, without first extracting commitments on structural reform.

Some German officials are keen to build up the ESM as an alternative to the Commission for eurozone governance. They admit that the ESM currently lacks economic expertise but think that in the long run it could evolve into a European Monetary Fund. They believe that in contrast to the Commission it is not subject to political pressure. However, some foreign ministry officials understand that Germany is rather isolated in its desire to bash the Commission. For example, Poland – an important German ally – is usually supportive of the Commission. These officials therefore believe that any German attempt to promote the ESM as an alternative will not get very far.

Another source of tension between Berlin and Warsaw is the Eurogroup. The Poles – like the British – want the key body for taking decisions in the EU to remain the 28-member Council of Ministers. They worry that building up the Eurogroup could hurt countries outside the euro, as well as the single market. Some German officials are ready to go along with France’s wish to develop eurozone-specific institutions. Merkel, however, is keen to maintain the importance of the 28, partly because of her warm relations with the Polish and British prime ministers.

Twelve months ago, German officials were all for treaty change; six months ago, they really hoped it would be possible, but recognised that it might not be. Now they think that in an ideal world, treaty change would be desirable, but they are mostly reconciled to its postponement for a long time. The reason is simple: the only other member-state that wants treaty change is the UK, which means that the chances of the whole EU adopting a new treaty are zero.

The top officials say that if there is to be a new EU treaty, it would have to be negotiated in 2016, as the various election and referendum calendars allow no other possibility. Any new treaty would be a small, “surgical” change that would not require a convention (a suitable model may be the fiscal compact, last year’s non-EU treaty that did not require ratification by all signatories before entering into force). But these officials acknowledge that there may well be no new treaty of any sort, and they say that the EU can cope perfectly well with the existing ones. (The finance ministry would still like a treaty amendment to strengthen the independence of the EU’s new banking supervisory mechanism, but that is a long-term objective. Its own plans for a resolution regime would not require an amendment in their first phase.)

Germany’s recoiling from treaty change will be unwelcome news to some British Conservatives. They have been counting on the EU needing a new treaty, and thus a British signature, in order to extract concessions – such as the repatriation of powers – from Britain’s partners. It seems unlikely that the British government will enjoy that kind of leverage before the referendum that David Cameron has promised in 2017.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Commons vote on Syria:The world turned upside down

Prime Minister David Cameron made a strong case for taking military action to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons. Labour leader Ed Miliband said that he was willing to consider it. It took a combination of party political manoeuvring and a rebellion by Conservative isolationists to defeat the government on August 29th, ensuring that Britain would not join in any operation. The vote is already affecting the UK’s relationship with the US. It may also reduce still further Europe’s willingness to equip and train for conflicts outside its borders. It does not (yet) mean that Britain has pulled up the drawbridge, but it will make it harder for future governments to get involved in wars, even for noble causes.

The vote in the Commons did not necessarily reflect a majority against the principle of military action. Four hundred and ninety MPs voted to start a process that could lead to military action. But they were split: the government, with no support from Labour MPs, put forward one set of conditions that would have to be met; the Labour Party, with no support from the coalition’s MPs, proposed a slightly different set. Only 52 MPs voted against the use of force in any circumstances by opposing both the government and opposition proposals.

The main reason that the government lost was that 30 Conservative and 9 Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government motion (with many others absent or not voting). There was a sense among the Conservative rebels that this was not Britain’s fight: comments included "Our job in this parliament is to look after our own people" and "The world needs to act. The world, however, does not equal the UK". There was a striking amount of criticism of the US, occasionally bordering on hostility, from some Conservatives.

A closer look at the 30 Conservative rebels is revealing: 26 of them also rebelled against the government and voted in favour of a referendum on the UK's EU membership in October 2011. In the past, many Conservative eurosceptics have favoured an Atlantic alternative of closer partnership with the US rather than the EU. There is now a significant group, however, for whom the choice is not between Europe and the open sea, but between (as they see it) the illusion of "punching above our weight" and the reality of being a medium-sized power with domestic problems to fix. Their position resembles that of the populist UK Independence Party, which – to quote their website – opposes "needless foreign adventures that don't directly affect us as a nation".

To judge from opinion polls, this scepticism about UK involvement in distant conflicts reflects the popular mood; but in the past national politicians have been more willing to ignore such sentiments in favour of maintaining Britain's status as a leading world power and defender of international norms. If the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband had been more confident that taking action was the right thing to do, they might have found it easier to agree on a motion that government and opposition could both back. As it was, the Prime Minister had no hesitation in confirming on the night of the vote that the government would abide by what he considered to be the will of Parliament: Britain would not take part in any military action against Syria. Ministers have been surprisingly ready to say that there will not be another vote unless circumstances change very significantly – almost as though defeat had come as something of a relief to them. It is not clear how bad things would have to get in Syria before they would revisit the issue.

While publicly the US administration has expressed understanding for the situation, in his speech on August 30th Secretary of State John Kerry pointedly left the UK out of a list of US allies in dealing with Syria. British military staff attached to US Central Command headquarters (from which any Syria operation will be run) are reportedly being excluded from discussions. It is certainly an exaggeration to speak of the demise of the special relationship – not least because the unique intelligence relationship between the UK and US will certainly continue. But at least since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Britain's willingness to turn up has been more important to the US than any practical military contribution it could make. If the UK loses the political will even to play a symbolic role in operations, that will certainly erode the basis of the relationship.

There is also a question of why President Obama has now decided to consult Congress before taking military action – something which clearly was not envisaged before the British vote. Was the President's position weakened by David Cameron’s defeat, so that he felt he had to give in to pressure from Congressional Republicans to offer them the same chance that British MPs had had to debate military action? Comments by White House officials suggest a degree of irritation with the British for starting down this road. If (as is possible) Obama fails to get the support of at least the House of Representatives, the administration may well put part of the blame on the British. Another CER Insight in the coming days will deal with other international implications of a possible strike on Syria.

Within Europe, the Commons vote threatens to undermine improving Franco-British ties on defence and security. David Cameron and Francois Hollande are not natural soul-mates, and Hollande did not initially share Nicolas Sarkozy's enthusiasm for defence co-operation with the UK. But Britain's willingness to provide modest logistical help in the initial stages of France's Mali operation earlier this year, and subsequent shared views on Syria (including on the question of partially lifting the EU's arms embargo to allow weapons deliveries to the opposition) had started to turn things round. This renewed alignment between the UK and France, and the embarrassment of failing to back them in Libya in 2011, seemed to be nudging Germany in the direction of supporting action in Syria (Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on August 26th that if the use of chemical weapons were confirmed by UN inspectors, then Germany would "be among those who think that some consequence will have to be drawn"). After the British vote, and probably not by coincidence, Chancellor Merkel's spokesman seemed to rule out any German involvement, leaving France isolated as the only European country likely to join the US in military operations.

The British vote comes at an inconvenient time in the preparations for the December European Council discussion on European security and defence policy. The UK has been a keen promoter of increased European defence capabilities, particularly those such as strategic airlift which would enable European countries to play a more active part in expeditionary operations. But if reluctant partners believe, rightly or not, that the UK itself is losing the political will to undertake such operations, they are unlikely to respond to British pressure to spend more on such capabilities (though they may be relieved that the UK will no longer try to push them into wars at the behest of the US).

In NATO the vote may have an impact on the unresolved division between allies who believe that the alliance's main focus should be on territorial defence, and those who see the main threats to transatlantic security as global, not European, and want NATO to be able to act beyond its borders. Again, the UK's credibility as a strong supporter of an expeditionary outlook for NATO is likely to be reduced, while the position of countries like Poland (which has ruled out taking part in action against Syria and is more focused on security issues in its immediate neighbourhood) may be strengthened.

The Commons vote may turn out to have little long-term impact on the UK’s world view. Any response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is hedged with uncertainty. If a limited strike fails to prevent the future use of nerve gas, what would the Western reaction be? What impact would a strike have on regional security? Would it destroy any hope of improving the West’s relations with the new president of Iran, making conflict more likely? Perhaps in other circumstances, with more clarity about the ramifications of action, a parliamentary majority could be found. Perhaps next time the government would do a better job of rounding up its members to vote. Perhaps next time the Labour Party, having exorcised the demons of 2003 and the decision to invade Iraq, could vote on the merits of the case when an atrocity needs to be punished.

But equally, the vote could turn out to be the signal for a strategic shift in favour of insularity. By voting – almost by accident – against even a modest military gesture, British MPs risk sending the message that in future the UK will be content to stay on the side-lines, regardless of what is happening in distant lands. For all the expressions of dismay from veteran statesmen like Tony Blair, former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, public opinion seems happy with that; and current political leaders seem disinclined to court unpopularity by reiterating the case for interventionism. For a country with global economic and security interests, that is a risky position to take, and a bad example to set.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.