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