Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron's Northern Alliance

Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron's Northern Alliance

Article excerpt

If David Cameron were to divide Europe up, he'd make some crude distinctions.

There would be the basket cases, like Italy, Spain, Greece, France - examples, by and large, of how countries should not be run. Then there'd be the former Soviet bloc, sceptical about Brussels because they recently escaped a remote, controlling bureaucracy and don't want to repeat the experience. Then come the good guys, the people with whom he intends to reshape the continent: the Germans, the Dutch and the Scandis. This is the group that the Prime Minister has started referring to as his 'Northern Alliance'.

Mr Cameron has, until now, had little interest in the machinations of the European Union. To him, politics is primarily social - so he makes alliances by making friends. When Francois Hollande turned up for a visit, he was taken down to the pub and served a ploughman's lunch. Angela Merkel, by contrast, is being treated like a homecoming empress. Plans for her visit included an address to both Houses of Parliament, lunch at 10 Downing Street and an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. This pageantry is all the more surprising given the fact that Cameron doesn't have any favours to ask - at least, not now. He's buttering her up for the big one, when he wants to change the terms of Britain's EU membership and have the result of his efforts put to the country in a referendum.

What might Cameron want then? He has yet to say, which makes it difficult for the Germans to support him. This is where Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, comes in. Cameron has known him for years, and once bent the Commons' rules by giving him lunch in a dining room reserved for MPs. For an enthusiastic Anglophile like Rutte, such gestures are much appreciated.

He was in Britain again last week, invited to Chequers for talks and dinner. The two leaders have much to talk about (besides floods) - both are moderates in their mid forties, leading coalitions and implementing austerity at home. Both are facing challenges from Eurosceptic populists: Nigel Farage in Britain, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Both want radical reform to the European Union, but Rutte has a hard plan - one that could easily double as a Cameron manifesto.

He wants to put Brussels back in its box, giving national parliaments the power to veto EU directives they don't like. If more than a third of member states dislike an EU idea, he says, it should bite the dust. He also plans a new manifesto for the EU: it should stop spewing out directives, and act only when national parliaments cannot. Less interference, less spending, fewer diktats, more democracy. Precisely the sort of package that Cameron would like to offer in a referendum - albeit with a British stamp on it.

Angela Merkel should have no problem with any of these reforms. This is what Cameron would see as the 'Northern Alliance' idea of how countries should be run in a modern Europe - and the consensus extends well beyond the current political elite. A YouGov poll this week for Open Europe shows a clear majority in both Britain and Germany agreeing with the Rutte proposal: that more policies should be decided by national parliaments, and fewer by the EU level. When Brits were asked which European leader they'd most like to replace Cameron, Mrs Merkel came top and Mr Rutte second. We are, it seems, all northerners now.

The attraction of a Northern Alliance will, of course, be tied to the Scandimania now sweeping Britain. Never has there been so much appetite for all things Nordic: the crime novels, the clothes, the music, the television box-sets and even the booze. The traditional images of Sweden - blondes and Abba - have been joined by Spotify and The Killing. Even Ed Miliband has made a pilgrimage to Stockholm to see what ideas he can bring back to Britain. A creative explosion is under way in northern Europe, and it captures the imaginations of politicians as much as it does those of consumers. …

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