David Cameron’s Open Europe Question

by Shane Fitzgerald

The Conservatives face tough choices as they try to settle their European policy ahead of a crucial party conference.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street, a newly confident Conservative Party is poised to take over again from a battered and unpopular Labour government. Opposition leader David Cameron’s revival of the Conservatives has been remarkable – turning a party that had been rendered unelectable into what looks like an unstoppable force – but doubts remain both as to what his young team really wants to do and what they can possibly achieve.

In his Leader’s Speech at the party’s upcoming annual conference (October 5-8), Cameron will outline ambitious Tory plans to fix Britain’s economy, pursue social justice and square up to climate change. Yet to win a real mandate from the electorate Cameron has to turn votes against New Labour into votes for his new Conservatives. To do that he will have to convince in October.

In 2006, the new Tory leader made “not banging on about Europe” a badge of pride for a newly moderate, sensitive party that was “back in the centre ground”, “talking about things that people really care about”. But he will not get away from talking about the EU this October for two reasons. The first is that Irish voters will have just gone to the polls in their second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The second, more important reason is that, against his own instincts, Cameron has chosen to make the Treaty and the UK’s relationship with the EU big issues in the months coming up to a general election.

After the European Parliament elections this year, Cameron removed the Tory delegation from its traditional centre-right grouping (the EPP-ED) and started up a new anti-federalist coalition. By forming the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECRG), he has both fulfilled a promise he made to his party’s Eurosceptic wing during the party leadership contest in 2005 and inhibited further erosion of his base by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and other anti-EU elements. But he has done so at the cost of diluting Britain’s influence and angering powerful potential allies in the EU, and inviting a flood of criticism from the media, government and members of his own party at home.

Cameron has also promised to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and campaign for a No vote if he comes to power before it is ratified. That scenario looks increasingly unlikely, yet speculation on the prospect of a British referendum persists, fueled by tough rhetoric from Cameron and Hague about how they “would not let matters rest” regardless of whether or not other member states proceed with ratification. But Shadow Cabinet Minister, Ken Clarke, has clarified that if ratification comes into effect then the Conservatives’ settled policy is quite clear: the Treaty will not be reopened. This has implications in the context of the Irish debate on ‘Lisbon II’. Voters should know that a Yes vote would be respected by the Tories in power (assuming that delays in Czech and German ratification do not persist past a UK general election likely to be held in May or June 2010). But a second Irish rejection of the Treaty would embolden British Eurosceptics, and in the context of a Conservative government would be more likely to contribute to an overall fragmentation of the EU system, since Tory demands would trigger a chain of events much more volatile than that caused by the first Irish No vote. As a recent Irish Times editorial makes clear, this scenario is exactly what UKIP and other rightwing UK actors are trying to provoke by their overt and covert interventions in the Irish Lisbon debate.

So far, by forming the ECRG and taking such a strong line on Lisbon, Cameron has tossed British Eurosceptics a couple of bones. In office, he will find them barking for red meat. Though most commentators expect a more considered attitude from Cameron in government, it will not now be easy for him to moderate his position. Referendum or not, should the Conservatives win the next election, he has promised to push for a return of powers from Brussels to Westminster. But it is not at all clear what of substance he expects to be able to win in any such renegotiation of competences. Tinkering with employment legislation or reinstating the British opt-out from the Social Chapter may be possible, but forcing a renegotiation on the CAP, fisheries policy or Justice and Home Affairs legislation will be much more difficult. Trying hard to do so in his first years in office will waste valuable time and political capital and frustrate the nascent political alliances he needs to further his ambitious foreign policy agenda.

While the financial crisis makes it somewhat easier for Cameron and the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, to advance an agenda of domestic austerity, the budget deficit they will inherit from Labour means that they will almost certainly have to raise taxes as well as cut spending. This will be anathema to their political base, who will have to be offered something else that they can rally behind. That something could well be the well-worn Eurosceptic banner. The tale of Thatcher doggedly fighting for the UK in Brussels and clawing back the British rebate resonates strongly in the proud Tory heartlands. It would be a major coup for Cameron if he could write himself a similar narrative.

Inasmuch as he pitches his battle as one with the straw man of a federal Europe, Cameron may be able to present generic assurances and minor opt-outs as strategic victories. But there can be no doubt that he is playing with fire. New Labour’s policy of faint praise for the EU masked the true extent of Euroscepticism in Britain. As shown by the most recent Flash Eurobarometer survey, the British public remains highly ambivalent about the EU. With public trust in politicians at a historically low ebb, failure to match words with action could provoke a sharp response from the Tory party faithful. On the other hand, Cameron has spoken of his vision of an outward-looking ‘3G Europe’, moving beyond institutional navel-gazing in 2010 and ready to lead with solutions to the problems of Globalisation, Global warming and Global poverty. Dredging up existing European settlements to appease his electorate will win him no friends in the Union, nor further afield.

If the Conservatives are skilful enough, they can play on the huge gap between the widespread perception in the UK of a malevolent European superstate (which they have encouraged) and the reality of a normal, if occasionally malfunctioning, multilateral political organisation. By offering a narrative that progresses from a nasty vision of Europe into a nicer one, with the Conservatives playing a leading role in the transformation, he may be able to present himself as a saviour of Britain in Europe while pursuing his 3G agenda within the existing Treaty structures. But failure to do so could provoke crises within both the EU and his own party, resulting in further rounds of unproductive introspection in what will be a crucial year for the Conservatives, for Britain and for Europe.

This article was first published by the Institute of International and European Affairs. Access the original here.