What precisely is David Cameron’s EU strategy?
The events of the last few days demonstrate precisely why predictions have no place in politics. As Cameron departed for Brussels on Thursday the script was ostensibly written; despite promising a resolute defence of British interests there was little to suggest that the Prime Minister intended to act any differently to his recent predecessors. Indeed, he had conspicuously refused to even use the word ‘repatriation’ at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday – his focus was instead on the imperative need to tackle the euro-zone crisis and to prevent a collapse that would be profoundly damaging not only to our neighbours but to Britain too. The stage was set for a Chamberlain moment – nothing but submission was expected from a prime minister bound by coalition and up against overwhelming diplomatic pressure. And yet by the time he arrived back in the UK the comparisons were, instead, firmly with Thatcher. In the face of the Franco-German alliance’s refusal to allow the United Kingdom exemption from financial services regulation that would negatively impact the City Cameron did what few leaders have dared in recent decades: he stood up to Brussels.
On the continent the reaction to British defiance was as immediate as it was contemptuous. One French diplomat asserted that Britain’s stance is, mutatis mutandis, like a man who goes to a wife-swapping party without bringing his wife, whilst another said that it was a ‘blessing’ that would enable the other 26 member states to move more quickly with implementing financial reforms. This, of course, reflects the view of Sarkozy, for whom the exclusion of Britain ‘is a famous political victory’. President Nicolas Sarkozy had long favoured the creation of a smaller, ‘core’ euro-zone, ‘without the awkward British...that generally pursue more liberal, market-oriented policies’. Unhindered by the chronic recalcitrance of Britain, France and Germany are free to push ahead with the two-speed Europe they have long sought. For her part, Merkel expressed the opinion that Britain ‘was (n)ever with us at the table’ – 20 years to the day after negotiating an opt-out from monetary union at Maastricht, the British were once again seeking special treatment rather than moving forward with other member states towards ‘ever closer union’. There was initially talk of Sweden, Hungary and the Czech Republic joining Britain in rebuffing the proposed amendments to the Lisbon Treaty – and they may still do so after consulting their respective national parliaments. However, for now, the United Kingdom stands alone.
While the European reaction was immediate, it is only now that the domestic fallout from Cameron’s ‘veto’ is beginning to unravel. Having initially enjoyed nearly unanimous support in both the media and Westminster (save for the ubiquitous Miliband who, in typical fashion, offered plenty of disapproval but no credible alternative) opinion has become fractured, and nowhere more so than at the heart of the Coalition. Nick Clegg’s initial praise for the Prime Minister’s ‘modest and reasonable’ demands has long since been cast aside: the Deputy Prime Minister has instead chosen to placate the dissatisfaction that courses through his own party by vocalising his deep dissatisfaction at the events of the summit. Britain’s refusal to play the diplomatic game, he avers, will harm British interests in the long run by leading to ‘isolation’ and ‘marginalisation’. To some extent Clegg’s change of tune is unsurprising: the latest Populus poll indicates that 51% of Lib Dems are unhappy with Cameron’s decision, while figures such as Cable and Ashdown are incensed at the way in which the Prime Minister handled the summit.
But the LibDems’ discontent should not overly trouble Cameron: for all Cable’s bluster there is little chance of him stepping down as Business Secretary, and with the party struggling to reach double figures in polling, they are acutely aware that an outright Coalition split would be tantamount to political suicide. Despite not even turning up to the Commons for yesterday’s EU statement, later saying that his presence would have caused an unnecessary distraction (something his noticeable absence did quite satisfactorily), Clegg has insisted that the Coalition is ‘here to stay’, a sentiment reiterated by Danny Alexander. The Coalition’s junior partner may bemoan the Conservatives’ European policy and even attempt to thwart it in the coming months, but there is no risk of disintegration. What is far more significant for Cameron is that he has succeeded in uniting his party over what is easily its most divisive issue and won over vast swathes of the mainstream media.
What should worry him, however, is the pressing need to decide where to go next.
Amidst the back-slapping and optimism within the Conservative Party, Cameron’s MPs remain acutely aware that in ‘effectively’ utilising his veto in Brussels, the Prime Minister actually did far less than he had previously promised he would do. In requesting immunity from the proposed financial services tax and other fiscal measures Cameron sought only to maintain the status quo: there was no talk of repatriation and no spectre of renegotiation, two issues that punctuated Cameron’s rhetoric throughout the run-up to the general election last year. That the Prime Minister’s ‘effective veto’ is such big news owes not to his fulfilment of any manifesto pledge or ‘cast-iron guarantee’ but to the fact that previous prime ministers did not dare to stand up to the EU in such a forthright manner. Cameron’s decision was, for this reason, rather gutsy – in the face of overwhelming diplomatic pressure he placed integrity before complicity in a way that few heads of nation states have previously dared – but it was not analogous to Britain setting out its desire to renegotiate its terms of membership.
The frustration at Cameron’s unwillingness to hold a referendum and his refusal to back up talk of repatriation with substantive action may have been assuaged for now, but failure to maintain momentum will cause the same dissatisfaction exhibited at the recent Commons referendum motion debate to percolate through once more. Cameron made it clear in yesterday’s House of Commons statement that he wishes to see Britain remain ‘a full, committed and influential member of the EU’. But with referendum calls from Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson, in addition to a sizeable minority of backbenchers, it will not be long before the Prime Minister is forced to articulate his precise vision and the extent of this commitment. For, at present, so much is still uncertain – will there be a referendum? A renegotiation? Will the Prime Minister maintain his opposition to the Euro-26 making use of the EU’s institutions to impose their new fiscal measures?
A prosaic and indistinct commitment to returning powers at some point in the future will not satisfy those who view last week’s actions as representing, at best, the start of something seismic, and at worst an ample opportunity for Britain to at least begin to renegotiate its relationship with the EU.