Analysis: Opportunity knocks for statesman Cameron
At first glance, 2013 offers a fresh opportunity for David Cameron to show off his statesmanlike qualities. In reality, British diplomacy is up to its grubby old tricks once again.
It's simple, really. Take the EU and the US, two of the biggest players in the global economy. Combine them together to create a single market area making up one-third of its trade. Take that, China. Take that, Brazil, India, Russia. This could be Cameron's biggest contribution to the history of the planet we live on – a major shot in the arm for the nations of the industrial west, helping the most established economies on the planet fight back against the young challengers emerging from the east. A glittering prize for whoever achieves it, that's for sure.
For the first time since 2005, when the British-led Gleneagles summit notched up a real triumph for the Tony Blair/Bob Geldof combo, the UK is once again in the driving seat of the G8's presidency. Cameron has spelled out his agenda in a letter to the other G8 leaders released today. There are lots of complex proposals about tax, transparency and the like. But one much more ambitious goal is included in the list, too. "Perhaps the single biggest prize of all," the PM writes, "would be the beginning of negotiations on an EU-US trade agreement".
Cameron's language is not especially bold, admittedly. But this is partly explained by the fact the UK is not proposing this out of the blue. Suggestions about the possibility of talks starting in spring have been rumbling on for several months, and leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel have already been dropping heavy hints about their support for such a deal. Now, with Barack Obama firmly re-elected in the White House until 2016, officials think the time is ripe for a big-ticket attempt at a trade deal. The UK's broader focus on trade, which also comes at a time when the EU and Canada are looking to wrap up a deal, and the EU and Japan are beginning negotiations, will help keep attention on the biggest prize of all. Russia, which joined the World Trade Organisation last year, will be watching carefully.
Could Cameron and the UK actually help make an EU-US trade deal more likely? It's certainly possible. Britain likes to think of itself as hovering in a somewhat vague space between the European continent and the east coast of America. Geographical proximity rubs up against the 'special relationship' to put us in an unusually strong position.
On the other hand, the style and tone of this particular government's approach has not been especially helpful. Cameron's antagonistic approach to Europe's own internal troubles – he vetoed broad moves towards fiscal integration without actually making any real difference to the end result – has left the UK in a peculiarly isolated position. It may well be London's current low stock might mean Britain's infamous global reach might have shrunk as a result.
Fortunately for Foreign Office officials, these potential hurdles can be played down in the months to come. The most effective way of getting things done diplomatically is to hop on the bandwagon after all the hard work has already been done. US officials are feeling confident a deal can be met. They know where the obstacles are and seem upbeat that these can be resolved. It may be the EU-US trade deal ends up owing very little to British involvement. Still, the G8 presidency is an opportunity too good for Cameron to miss. Politics is as much about exaggerating the credit taken from achievements as it is about downplaying embarrassing failures and scandals. On the global stage, Britain's seasoned officials aren't letting this one pass by.
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