When William Hague starts making nice with Europe, you know the Tories are getting very worried about their falling poll numbers. Over the past week the Conservatives have been bending over backward to rebut an increasingly successful line of attack by Labour that accuses them of being isolationist.
Yesterday in a speech in London the Conservative's shadow foreign secretary William Hague sounded a very different tone than he was just a few months ago. He insisted that the Tories would play a "leading role" in the EU if they were elected to power in May. Calling the EU “an institution of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and its foreign policy,” he said that the Conservatives’ intention was to be active in Brussels, “energetically engaging with our partners.” It was, to say the least, quite an about-face from the barely veiled contempt the Tories have displayed for the EU as they rode higher and higher in the polls over the past two years.
The speech clearly had two intended audiences. One was an increasingly skeptical British public who have begun to doubt whether the Tories have really changed from theconfused and conflicted party they were in the 1990’s. The other audience was fellow European leaders, particularly Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, who have been enraged by the Tories’ behavior over the past two years. To say the least, David Cameron’s outspoken criticism of the Lisbon reform treaty did not go over well on the continent. But it was Cameron’s decision last year to remove the Tories from the pan-European conservative party (EPP) in the European parliament to form a new anti-EU party with hard right Eastern European parties which really provoked the ire of the Tories' centre-reight European counterparts. Merkel’s Christian Democrats have reportedly suspended meetings with the British Conservatives since that decision.
While he acknowledged that the Tories had used “frank criticism” of the EU in the past, he said they accept that the Lisbon Treaty is now law and they will work under its provisions, dropping their objections to it. He also sought to combat Labour’s portrayal of the Tories as Europhobic, insisting that the Conservatives are the "foremost champions" of the single market. He said the Tories would work closely with the new EU foreign secretary, British baroness Catherine Ashton.
But can a few nice words really heal the damage the Tories have done to their relationships with the other main conservative parties of Europe? Hague did not directly address the decision to leave the European conservative party, nor did he explicity distance himself from some of the more incendiary anti-European comments made by back-bench Tories like Daniel Hannan.
It also seems unclear whether Hague’s words will be strong enough to quell the dissent within his own party over the EU issue. Eurosceptic party members are loudly demanding a hard line stance on the EU that would claw back national powers that have gone to Brussels.
These calls from the backbenches of the Tory party, as well as the decision by Cameron to anger his natural European conservative allies by leaving the EPP, have been increasingly effective ammunition for Labour. They've said the Tories would marginalise the UK in Europe and isolate the country internationally. Labour Europe Minister Chris Bryant didn’t mince words this week when he said, “The Conservatives' willingness to isolate Britain on the world stage would make achieving crucial foreign policy goals much more difficult. The Conservatives continue to obsessively put their Eurosceptic agenda ahead of the interests of British businesses and are also prepared to threaten the vital work we do with our European allies on defence issues."
Hague’s speech was clearly meant as a rebutall to these accusations. But in comments to the Financial Times earlier this week he seemed to suggest his mindset hasn’t changed at all. He accused Labour of presiding over a period where the UK has lost influence in the world, and said the UK risked “retreating into its shell” as a result. Of course to blame the UK’s loss of global influence on Labour is a bit like trying to blame a leaf in a river for the river’s current. The loss of independent British influence on the world stage is an inevitable reality that has already begun. If Hague believes it is possible to turn the tide on that without becoming an influential part of a strong European Union, he fails to spell out what this genius plan entails. In fact, speaking to the FT he made no connection between the loss of British influence and its refusal to play an influential roll in Europe.
Contrast this with yesterday’s speech by the new EU foreign minister Baroness Ashton, a Labour peer. Inaugurating the new EU diplomatic service, she spoke of a stark choice for individual European nations between unity or irrelevance. One assumes she had her homeland very much in mind when she made these comments. Her words closely mirrored those used by Labour Foreign Minister David Milliband, who has been a vocal advocate of the EU.
So, if the UK is indeed losing influence as Hague suggests, it would appear Labour seems to have a plan for what to do about that. Do the Conservatives? Beyond some nice conciliatory words meant to smooth over the fears of the British public and European leaders, it’s hard to find any evidence that they really “get it”.