Thursday, 8 December 2011

Cameron's choice tonight: will UK be inside or outside the room?

The degree to which the Left has become irrelevant in Europe was in evidence today as the European People’s Party (EPP), the EU grouping of Europe’s centre-right conservative parties, met in Marseille. The annual meeting of centre-right leaders, which coincidentally is this year a day before the final European Council, has toda become a first round in the treaty change talks. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been there meeting with Europe's Conservative leaders, helping them to devise a strategy to save the Euro. Every leader who is important in this process was there today.

But it is not only the Left that is noticeable in their absence today in Marseille. Despite being a centre-right conservative leader, David Cameron is not there either. That’s because in 2009 Cameron took the decision to take his Tory party out of the EPP group and create a new, europsceptic grouping called ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’. That group is essentially just the British Conservatives, with a few hard right parties from Eastern Europe thrown in for good measure.

That decision, which was the fulfilment of a promise he made to the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party in 2005 in order to be appointed party leader, may well be weighing heavily on the British leader’s mind today. He has already been locked out of the discussions amongst Eurozone leaders to devise a strategy to end the euro crisis. Now he is also locked out of the pre-summit meeting today in Marseille where so much of the strategy is being formulated. The later is a self-inflicted wound, and must be particularly hard to take considering it’s hard to see how creating a new EU group has benefitted the Tories in any way.

The move to take the Tories out of the EPP was probably not something Cameron actually wanted to do. But he has been forced to talk tough on Europe in order to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his party, and this was likely an action he thought he could take with little consequence. Perhaps he didn't see at the time how significant it would be, removing himself from the group that is now governing Europe. He likely hoped that tossing the eurosceptics that bone in 2009 would make the Europe headache go away. After all, it is an issue he clearly doesn't want to deal with because he knows it has torn the party apart in the past.

But the issue hasn't gone away, in fact it’s become an increasingly jarring problem for him as the Eurosceptics have become increasingly more brazen. He has to pretend to be in agreement with the unrealistic demands of the eurosceptic backbenchers, but then come to Brussels and face reality.

Now the backbenchers are demanding that Cameron threaten to veto the treaty changes to save the euro designed by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (or “Merkozy” as people are now calling the lock-step pair) unless the EU agrees to give the UK further opt-outs from EU legislation. They want him to demand repatriation of powers in areas completely unrelated to the current crisis, like fisheries, agriculture and working time.

Of course this is a ridiculous demand for a variety of reasons. For one thing, playing chicken with a crisis that threatens to bring down not just the eurozone, but also the British economy (and likely the world economy), is not only self-defeating but also morally unjustifiable. For another thing, Merkel and Sarkozy have already indicated that if any of the 10 non-euro-using EU countries give them any trouble about backing the treaty, they will just adopt a separate pack with the 17 euro-using (Eurozone) countries only. Cameron has no cards to play, and even if he did it would be wildly irresponsible to use them.

It’s a political mess for the UK, but it’s one you could see coming a mile away. In 2009 I wrote about this dilemma for Cameron. It was all too easy for Cameron to play up populist EU-bashing while in opposition, but he knew even then that he was walking a delicate line, because once he got into power he would have to be realistic, and the howls of the Eurosceptic right in Britain do not live in that realm of reality.

It was easy for Cameron to publicly demand a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty while he was in opposition, but privately he was likely desperately hoping that the British Parliament would pass it before he came into office. Such a referendum, sure to yield a no vote, would have been an enormous headache for whoever the prime minister was at the time and possibly lead to the UK leaving the EU - something Cameron does not want. In today’s Wintour and Watt blog in the Guardian they recall a conversation in 2009 with Lord Garel-Jones, the Conservative Europe minister under John Major, when he said,
It is now a tradition in Britain that all the major parties behave badly on Europe in opposition and they all behave fairly sensibly when they get into government. Cameron is a sensible, clever, thoughtful young man. If he becomes prime minister he will behave in a sensible, clever and thoughtful way and in the best interests of Britain.
This prediction has played out exactly, opening Cameron to criticism from both his back-benchers and his opposition. During prime minister’s questions this week Labour leader Ed Milliband asked,
Why does the prime minister think it is in the national interest to tell his backbenchers one thing to quell a rebellion on Europe, and to tell his European partners another thing?
Of course the obvious answer is that it isn’t in the national interest, but it is in David Cameron’s political interest if he wants to stop a revolt in his party that could see him tossed out of office. He’s really in an impossible situation.

Here in Brussels we're waiting for the important leaders of Germany, France and the European Commission to arrive from Marseille. I suppose David Cameron will be arriving on a train from London any minute now as well. Someone will have to catch him up on what has been decided already today.

Tonight he must make the decision: will he agree to treaty change for the eurozone countries, allowing all 27 member states to be involved in the process? Or will he say no, forcing the 17 eurozone countries to adopt a treaty on their own. If he opts for the latter, it means he and the other nine leaders from the EU countries not using the euro will have to leave after lunch tomorrow, and in the afternoon the 17 Eurozone leaders will decide Europe’s future amongst themselves. Either way, the UK will be hugely affected by what is decided tomorrow. It is up to Cameron to decide whether the UK will be involved in making the decisions.

Ah, I hear the sirens. The leaders have arrived!


Sue said...

This is being called a "centre right" group. It most certainly is not a Britons understanding of centre right. We who ARE right of centre are now being called far right.... which of course is wrong :)

These people are deciding whether to become a dictatorship or not, since when is that centre-right? It's a communist idea!

Captain Kid said...

A dictatorship? Why don't you just use your brain and make yourself aware of what is really going on instead of just quoting far-right tabloids?