I was at a conference in Copenhagen on Tuesday when the news broke that Czech President Vaclav Klaus had finally signed the Lisbon Treaty, following a Czech court ruling that the treaty did not violate Czech sovereignty. As soon as someone announced the news the room broke into applause – which is significant because this was an industry conference, not a gathering of EU policy-makers.
The capitulation by the Czech president meant that UK conservative leader David Cameron would have to abandon his crusade to put the treaty to a public referendum in the UK. He had made a “cast-iron” guarantee that the Tories would offer the British public a referendum on the document if the Tories were elected, but he had never addressed what he would do if the treaty went into effect before the Tories came into power. On Wednesday Cameron hastily arranged a speech acknowledging the obvious: now that the treaty has been ratified it is no longer a treaty, but EU law – making a referendum at this point essentially meaningless. At the same time he said he would work to "unravel" much of the treaty through negotiations over the coming years and would seek new "opt-outs" for Britain from EU policy.
In fact, a ‘no’ vote on the treaty would at this point mean a ‘no’ vote to the EU, and the implication of such a result would be that Britain must exit the union – something Cameron knows would be a disaster for the UK. His decision to abandon his plans for a referendum is less an active policy choice that an acknowledgement of reality.
The reaction to Cameron’s speech in the British press has been strangely schizophrenic. The right-leaning papers have focused on Cameron’s “capitulation to Europe” and a supposed “abandonment” of the Eurosceptic wing of the party. The Telegraph ran this headline yesterday: “David Cameron tells Eurosceptics: get over it,” followed by an interpretation that Cameron has rejected the Tory Eurosceptics by putting Europe low on the agenda. They point to the resignation of the two most rabidly anti-Europe MEPs, Daniel Hannon and Roger Helmer, from their front-bench positions in protest over Cameron’s decision.
On the other hand the left-leaning papers have focused on the nonsensical nature of Cameron’s speech yesterday, highlighting the fact that Cameron is still being antagonistic toward Europe yet he is not being clear in exactly what he wants from it. They point out that the UK already has many of the opt-outs Cameron said he would ask for in the coming years, including not being part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (Brown already negotiated a UK opt-out to that part of the treaty). And they have recounted the baffled reaction of many leaders on the continent to the content of Cameron’s speech. Cameron’s promise to renegotiate employment law is almost laughably absurd, the continental politicians said, considering there is almost no chance Britain's European partners would approve an opt-out as it would be seen as giving the UK an unfair advantage in attracting foreign investment. And his promise that “never again” would a treaty pass without a public referendum in Britain is an empty gesture considering the Commission has already said it will not attempt any further institutional reform for at least a decade and probably much longer.
But it was the furious reaction from the French government to Cameron’s speech which the left-leaning papers focused on the most. In a stunning abandonment of diplomatic niceties, France’s Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche came out with a remarkable condemnation of the Tories, saying he was conveying French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “sadness and regret” over the path Cameron has chosen to take. Lellouche told the Guardian:
"It's pathetic. It's just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just cutting itself out from the rest and disappearing from the radar map …. This is a culture of opposition…I have told William Hague: go away for two to three years, in your political economic situation you're going to be all by your self and you'll come back. Go ahead and do it. That is my message to them … You want to be marginalised? Well, you go for it. But it's a waste of time for all of us.”The minister’s comments reflect the depth of the anger felt by Europe’s Conservative parties at Cameron’s decision to take the Tories out of the main centre-right European party, the European People’s Party, to form a new “anti-federalist” party in alliance with hard-right parties from Eastern Europe. Lellouche said Cameron’s decision had “castrated” British influence in the parliament, and his continued antagonism toward the EU – saying the same thing over and over but not expressing any coherent question or demand – seemed like “a very bizarre sense of autism”.
The comments were particularly surprising considering that Lellouche is one of the most Anglophile members of Sarkozy’s government. It should be kept in mind that these unusually harsh diplomatic words are not coming from socialist governments on the continent, they are coming from fellow conservatives.
Despite the very different coverage of the issues from the different British papers, it is actually really heartening to see Europe being discussed so much in the British media this week. Though Cameron seems to be trying his best to get rid of Europe as a campaign issue, it would probably be the best thing for the UK if Europe were made a central part of next year’s campaign. Labour certainly has every interest in bringing it up as much as possible, considering it has historically been an issue that has caused civil wars within the Conservative Party, and Labour will be eager to exploit lingering fears and doubts the public has about the Tories’ ability to govern.
But more importantly, having Europe as a major issue of the campaign could mean that Britain will finally get the frank, honest Europe discussion it has never had. If the Tories want to unravel the European project then they need to present to the British public what their alternative vision is for the UK to be a relevant part of the 21st century. So far the discussion of the EU in the UK has focused on silly euromyths about the length of vegetables rather than a real education on what the EU does and that its purpose is to make Europe a relevant, strong global player in the 21st century. That discussion has never been had here because most politicians dance around the central truth regarding the necessity of Britain’s EU membership: the UK is no longer a world power and it faces a future of marginalisation and irrelevance if it tries to go it alone. As Lellouche said Wednesday:
"It is a time of tumultuous waters all around us. Wars, terrorism, proliferation, Afghanistan, energy with Russia, massive immigration, economic crisis. It is time when the destiny of Europe is being defined – whether or not we will exist as a third of the world's GDP capable of fighting it out on climate, on trade, on every … issue on the surface of the Earth. We need to be united, otherwise we will be wiped out and marginalised. None of us can do it alone. Whether you're big or small, the lesson is the same. And [Britain's] risk is one of marginalisation. Irrelevance."It remains to be seen whether similiarly outraged words will be publicly expressed from Europe’s other conservative governments in Germany, Italy, Sweden and Denmark – but such views have already been expressed privately by Conservatives from all corners of Europe. Angela Merkel is reportedly refusing to even meet with Cameron, and joint policy groups between Germany’s CDU and the Tories have been cancelled.
If the Tories are elected next spring it would mean that all three major EU countries will have Conservative governments. Yet far from being an ideologically unified block that could plow through badly-needed reforms in Europe’s social model, there will be a huge chasm between the continent and Britain as a result of Cameron’s decisions.