Brussels received some encouraging news from across the channel today when we learned newly-elected UK Prime Minister David Cameron has dropped Mark Francois, the fiery eurosceptic who served as his shadow Europe Minister in opposition, in favour of a more centrist politician. The news is being received here today as a welcome sign that the Tories’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats will have a real and tangible effect on their stance toward the EU.
David Lidington, the man appointed to the Europe Minister post instead, is being described as a “euro-realist” by some of the more moderate members of the Conservative Party. He was, for instance an advisor to former Conservative prime minister John Major in the 1990s when he guided through passage of the Maastricht Treaty, the most significant milestone in the EU’s development.
But Lidington’s appointment has generated hackles from the party’s eurosceptic wing. They had expected Francois, who last year orchestrated the separation of the Tories from the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, to naturally graduate to being the ‘real’ Europe Minister when the Tories came into government. Francois is just one of a number of right-leaning Conservatives to not make the cut in the new cabinet, presumably because their hard-line conservatism would not have been acceptable to the Liberal Democrats.
The appointment comes after a weekend in which Cameron is said to have engaged in some friendly and constructive talks with his fellow centre-right European leaders Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. He had a bad falling out with both of them last year over the decision to leave their grouping in Europe.
Despite all the warm words and gestures however it is important to keep in mind that Europe Minister is one of the more unimportant ministerial posts in Westminster. It’s not even part of the cabinet, with the list of former occupants reading more like a "who's that?" than a "who's who". It’s the foreign minister who directs the UK’s relations with the EU, and that position is held by the very eurosceptic William Hague. Hague made clear where his foreign policy preoccupation will be last week when he hopped on a flight to Washington just days after the Tory government was formed, making the US his first foreign visit.
Changing the leopard’s spots
Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly told his MPs last week that Cameron would “start out eurosceptic and finish up pro-European. It’s the rule. He’ll be like all the others.” Sarko’s attitude is representative of many European leaders who think, perhaps naively, that the anti-Europe rhetoric used over the past few years by the Conservatives was just political posturing used to secure votes from a xenophobic middle England. According to this theory, the opposition party in the UK will always be eurosceptic, and the governing party will always be euro-realist. The governing party has no choice but to cooperate with Europe, and the opposition party has nothing to lose by attacking that cooperation.
Already the affects of this rather absurd situation can be seen as the Lisbon Treaty returns to the British parliament for a second ratification. The treaty will need to be passed again in Westminster in order to ratify an amendment changing the number of MEPs who sit in the European Parliament to reflect the entry of Bulgaria and Romania. The Tories made the Lisbon Treaty a central theme of their campaign, accusing Labour of undemocratic chicanery by passing it in the parliament in the same way that every other EU country did other than Ireland. They promised that “any future transfer of powers to Brussels” would be put to a national referendum.
Now the eurosceptic wing of the party is already calling him on that promise. Conservative MP Douglas Carswell told the BBC that he will lead the eurosceptic faction in demanding a national referendum on this second signing to ratify the amendment.
However Cameron’s government is calling the second vote a “technical adjustment” that would not transfer any power to the EU, and therefore does not count as something they would need to call a referendum for under their promise.
Of course that line is terribly amusing, considering that the Lisbon Treaty itself was described by many as a “technical adjustment” that simply sought to update the EU institutions to reflect the new size of the union. This was the line Labour used to explain why they did not need to call a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even though they had promised a referendum on the failed European Constitution that was rejected in 2005.
Brussels now assumes the Tories are going to be singing a very different EU tune in government than they were in opposition. After all, they’ve seen this dog and pony show before.
In addition to this assumption, now that the Tories have been forced to take on the pro-EU Lib Dems as a coalition partner many here in Brussels are breathing a sigh of relief and thinking they can sit back and relax. But as demonstrated by the rumblings today from the backbenchers objecting to the Lidington appointment and calling for a referendum on a technical amendment, there is a strong and vocal element of the Conservative party that is not going to roll over and watch the Cameron government play nice with Europe. They feel they were promised an anti-EU prime minister, and they will keep making noise when they feel they aren’t getting what they were promised.
Eventually, David Cameron is going to have to throw them a bone. And when that time comes, Brussels should be prepared for the battle.