22nd Feb 2024


Self-defeating Tories fighting over Europe again

  • David Cameron's authority has been rocked by two defections to the anti-EU UK independence party on the eve of his Conservative party's conference (Photo: bisgovuk)

While most British politicos have spent the last month on the beach or fretting about the possibility of the Scottish people sending the United Kingdom to its grave, the UK Conservative party spent the summer having yet another bout of internal warfare over its attitude towards the UK’s EU membership.

The defections to Ukip of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, two of the party's more prominent backbench MPs, have shattered the veneer of unity that the Conservatives were hoping to convey as they enter the final months before next May's general election.

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  • (Photo: Conservatives)

In truth, the two defections to the eurosceptic party shouldn't come as too much of a surprise - both are in favour of Britain leaving the EU and frequently voted against their government. But they are indicative of a growing divide between the Conservative leadership and its grassroots.

Prime Minister David Cameron may have promised to renegotiate membership and then hold an 'in/out' referendum, but his party is still undecided on whether that is enough to satisfy them..

If this internal party debate is baffling for most of the 64 million Britons who are not members of the Conservative party, one can only imagine the collective bemusement on the other side of the Channel.

The surprise is perhaps that so many Europeans still want the UK to remain in the bloc.

The Transatlantic Trends survey published earlier this month by the German Marshall Fund think tank found that 51 percent across the EU said they would be willing to accommodate British concerns about EU membership in order to keep the UK in the bloc. Meanwhile, 38 percent said that it would be better if the UK just left. France - the UK's oldest ally (and enemy) - was the only country surveyed in which a majority wanted l'albion perfide to leave the EU.

The question is whether EU leaders are prepared to spend time and political capital assuaging British concerns. A paper published this month by the German Council for Foreign Relations (DGAP) concludes that while many of Cameron’s criticisms of the EU, and his proposals for reform, are broadly supported in other capitals, no government is prepared to stick their neck out for Britain.

The paper also argues that governments doubt the sincerity of Cameron's intentions as an EU reformer rather than as a wrecker.

"Some of the UK's criticisms of the EU and proposals…are seen as legitimate," the paper states. "What is not seen as legitimate is advancing these as a purely national interest and using the threat of a Brexit as leverage".

This frustration is felt particularly keenly in Berlin where Angela Merkel's priority remains the resolution of the eurozone crisis and the completion of the banking union, and is anxious to avoid becoming the broker between London and the rest of the EU.

The perception that David Cameron and his team are not being constructive about EU reform is hard to shake off, but it is made almost impossible by the Conservative's internal conflict about whether to even bother with renegotiation.

Richard Corbett, re-elected as a Labour MEP after a four year stint advising European Council boss Herman van Rompuy, describes Cameron's tactics as "two forms of blackmail", holding the rest of Europe, and then the British people to ransom in order to appease his party's euroscepticism.

"The credibility of the demand for renegotiation is predicated on the credibility of the Brexit threat," he says.

Most EU countries, not to mention the US, Canada and others, would like the UK to remain part of the bloc. But they all have more pressing priorities.

At a conference on EU reform organised by Open Europe this year, an elderly former diplomat said that Britain was re-establishing itself as Europe's main reforming voice.

The trouble is that the conference in question was attended by just as many activists who simply want Britain to leave the bloc.

So Cameron, whose attitude to all things European is more one of apathy than hardened euroscepticism, faces two hurdles.

One is to avoid becoming the political version of the boy who cried wolf - and find himself being ignored even when his team have bright ideas. The other is his own party which still isn't sure whether it wants Brexit or reform.

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