Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The F-Word That Backbench Tories Use When Talking about Cameron's Europe Policy

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The F-Word That Backbench Tories Use When Talking about Cameron's Europe Policy

Article excerpt

There is no stylish way to fetch awkward policy decisions from the long grass after they've been punted there. Early next year, David Cameron will make a speech on Britain's future relationship with the European Union. The intervention has been advertised for months and serially delayed. When it happens, Downing Street will pretend it is a stately stroll around the manicured lawn of prime ministerial strategy. No one will be fooled. Cameron is scrabbling around in the unruliest corner of the Westminster field, where rebellious nettles sting, because his party has ordered him there and told him not to come back without a referendum.

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It has to be the genuine article, too. Tory MPs won't be satisfied with some low-rent consultation offering a choice between different flavours of EU membership. Exit has to be on the menu.

The Prime Minister has already blundered by allowing his Europe speech to acquire totemic significance. In a recent speech, he described the delay as a "tantric approach to policymaking ... [It will be] even better when it does come." Such ribaldry tickled his audience but it broke a basic rule of political presentation: under-promise and over-deliver. Once billed as orgasmic, a statement of intent to withdraw from, say, the common fisheries policy is sure to be an anticlimax.

Angry Albion

Cameron has a sound reason for postponing decisions on Europe. It makes no sense to invite the British people to endorse EU membership when no one can say what the EU will look like after the crisis in the single currency has played itself out. The sceptics insist eurozone turmoil is an opportunity for the UK to muscle in and snatch back lost sovereignty. Cameron, they say, should withhold support for any new Brussels treaty until those demands are met. Setting a referendum date is vital to that plan because it would show fellow European leaders that angry Albion isn't bluffing.

As well as being obnoxious as diplomacy, that strategy is wildly unrealistic. The powers that sceptics target for "repatriation"--the right to abandon swathes of social protection, for example--are locked up in treaty clauses that no other government wants to unpick.

As eurozone members negotiate deeper integration to buttress the single currency, Britain's potency in EU decision-making is automatically diluted. As the centre consolidates, the UK drifts to the periphery. The challenge for Cameron is not to claw competences back from Brussels but to fight for the right to stay in the room when countries that use the single currency are making decisions affecting countries that don't. The hard-core sceptics know their repatriation demand cannot be satisfied within the EU; it is a euphemism for exit.

Meanwhile, those Tory MPs who grasp the folly of Britain surrendering its seat on the board of the world's biggest trading bloc are getting nervous and starting to speak out. "There is a fantastic vision of an EU which remains a single market, including the UK but which in all other respects allows the UK to be outside," said the Home Office minister Damien Green in a speech on ii December. …

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