US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter caused a lot of fuss recently ahead of the G7 meeting in Germany. Is Britain disengaging from the word? The country, Carter noted, doesn't seem to be "punching above its weight" anymore. (It's actually starting to punch itself, people in Europe would add). Yet fears of British isolationism are not new. The latest fad in Tory grand strategy consists of driving away old allies without acquiring new ones. Examples abound: we've seen the Juncker-Schulz spectacle, the fiscal pact skirmish, even the erosion of Britain's special relationship with the US. The list goes on. Still, an issue that's often ignored from that list is London's messy diplomacy in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).
It seems hard to believe now, but there was once a time when CEE free movement had no greater champion than Britain. EU enlargement itself owes much to Whitehall efforts. The UK was first among the large economies to open its doors to workers from the east in 2004 - that's seven years ahead of France and Germany. Looking back upon these decisions, senior figures in the Blair ministry recall a British ambition to remain "the number one friend of eastern and central Europeans."
These days, such ambitions sound laughable. Indeed, few things seem to interest the current Prime Minister less than what easterners think of him. Whether intently or not, he's chosen instead to treat the region like a disposable collection of hunter-gatherer tribes. Goaded by tabloids, the UKIP-isation of the Tory party accelerated. Notions of "Bulgarian hordes at the gates" have infiltrated official discourse. Nigel Farage's temporary ban on migrant benefits found its way into the Tory manifesto. In a burst of creativity, Mr Cameron started floating the idea of an "emergency brake" on EU (read: CEE) migration.
This managed to entertain a few people in Brussels, but it left eastern Europeans un-amused. "If Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn't it also pay their benefits?" asked a Polish foreign minister. Tweeting a photo of World War II Czech soldiers, government officials in Prague wonder bitterly whether these Czechs who've "worked" in Britain for less than 4 years would qualify for any benefits. The Slovak and Hungarian governments express their indignation at the tone used in Britain's immigration debate, calling free movement a "red line" in any future negotiations. And then, of course, there're Romania and Bulgaria themselves. Rarely in its troubled history has the region been more united.
But why is this Cameron's problem? some will ask. A few tensions here and there, does eastern opposition even matter? Well, it matters if Cameron wants to get a EU treaty change. And apparently he does.
Many pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have been all too keen to minimise the need for EU - let alone CEE - diplomacy. They look up to Germany's dominant position in Europe and focus solely on obtaining a quick settlement with Ms Merkel. Swedes, Italians and Frenchmen don't really matter in this equation, to speak nothing of lesser powers. Mark Gilbert from Bloomberg breaks it down for us: Cameron wants stuff. He needs to "bring home some bacon". So now "it's up to Merkel" to ensure Britain gets its way. Treaty change could be a bit of a hassle, Gilbert candidly admits. But no excuses: "as Europe's de facto leader", it's Germany's responsibility to get on with it, line up its 27 EU minions and start delivering before London gets bored and leaves.
Unfortunately, the EU doesn't work this way. Firstly, because 21st century German foreign policy entails multilateralism. Poland, it should be noted, has risen to become Angela Merkel's 2nd most important ally in Europe after France. This impacts Mr Cameron's objectives, with the London-based Centre for European Reform saying that "Germany won't upset the Poles" in concession talks. It may, or it may not. It's all one-member-one-vote in the end.
And that's the crux of the matter. A treaty change requires unanimity. That's 28 member states (plus their respective Parliaments) agreeing on something. Almost a third of these states have been pushed into opposing anything that comes out of the British Prime Minister's mouth - at least on the subject of migration. That's not encouraging. If he is to succeed, Cameron must reduce this hostility. He must prove, for example, that cutting benefits to EU immigrants is a measure based on public finances and not on xenophobic populism. So far, studies indicate that Eastern Europeans put in 12% more in taxes than they take out in benefits. They are, in other words, living, breathing deficit reducers. So that's not encouraging either. Scapegoating migrants for "crowded hospitals, anarchic schools, falling wages" and the resurrection of flesh-eating zombies won't help either.
So what would help? Simply put, tact. When discussing the limits of free movement, the Prime Minister might want to focus less on the benefit-scrounging genes common to all Eastern Europeans. Instead, he could be constructive and empathise with the toll emigration takes on sending countries - skills shortages, social problems, or the €3bn Romania has lost training doctors that end up abroad. Reform, as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out recently, can be pursued without rancour. EU negotiations will depend as much on tone as on content, and showing a minimum amount of respect and diplomatic sensitivity will go a long way. If not out of courtesy (which has been lacking for years), at least out of pragmatic self-interest.