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22nd Jan 2022

British Conservatives consider renegotiation of key EU policies

  • The British Conservatives have difficulty defining their position on the EU (Photo: EUobserver)

The British Conservatives' notoriously tortuous relationship with the European Union came to the fore once again on Monday as the party appeared to back away from the idea of holding a referendum on the EU's planned treaty to trying to renegotiate specific policy areas.

"We think that the social and employment legislation, we think that's an area that ought to be determined nationally rather than at the European level. There are many things in the Lisbon Treaty - giving more power over home affairs and justice - that we don't think is right," Conservative leader David Cameron told the BBC.

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"We think Lisbon, the problem with it, is that it's taking powers away from the nation states, centralising them in Europe. We don't think that's the right approach."

The Conservatives, holding a four-day long party conference in the northern city of Manchester, are trying to find their way to a policy on Europe that will satisfy hardline opponents of the EU but not completely alienate other member states in the 27 nation Union.

The issue has come to a head due to Ireland's approval of the Lisbon Treaty on Friday (2 October) making it more likely that the new rules will come into place at the beginning of next year.

The vote served to underline the vagueness of Mr Cameron's policy on the issue. To date, he has said he will hold a referendum on the treaty if it is not in place when, as expected, the Conservatives are voted into power in Britain's election next year.

But he has not been clear what he will do if it is already in force in the EU.

Some party hardliners have been suggesting a referendum should be held in any case, but some others have shifted to saying that London should negotiate to try to win certain powers back - an idea that is being increasingly discussed.

Unanimity needed

However, even re-negotiation of EU policies would be fraught with difficulty. Mr Cameron would require the agreement of 14 member states to open an intergovernmental conference and any changes would have to be agreed by all 27 states unanimously.

"I think if the Conservatives really were to try and negotiate in these areas [employment and social policy], then relations between Britain and the EU would deteriorate very rapidly," Simon Tilford, from the Centre for European Reform thinktank, told this website.

"It's hard to see what the Conservative government pursuing that line could possibly achieve. It would leave the country pretty isolated and pretty impotent because there is no reason why concessions would be made to the UK on those areas. There are already wide-ranging opt-outs as it is, which cause considerable resentment elsewhere in the EU," he added.

But, according to Mr Tilford, in order to keep the most eurosceptic of the rank and file happy, Mr Cameron is inevitably going to have to hold "some sort of referendum on the EU" noting that "he is in charge of a party that is now far more eurosceptic than most people outside the UK are aware."

The feverish Conservative debate on its relations with the EU is being watched with keen interest by the business community in the country.

A strong factor for any centre-right party, businesses have started to show increasing concern that the Conservative's EU policies could isolate Britain when they should be at the heart of European discussions in areas such as financial services.

"The Conservatives do run risk that the business community now gets off the fence," says Mr Tilford.

The Europe issue, which Mr Cameron had attempted not to have dominate the party conference, will continue to be a hot topic on Tuesday with two controversial right-wing MEPs, from Poland and Latvia, due to speak at fringe meetings of the party congress.

The euro deputies - Michal Kaminski from Poland's Law and Justice Party and Roberts Zile from Latvia's hard-right Fatherland and Freedom Party - are the Tories' political colleagues in a new anti-federalist group in the European Parliament.

The Conservatives have faced strong criticism in parts of the British press who have questioned whether either the strongly Catholic, socially conservative Polish party or the nationalist Latvian party make suitable political bedfellows.

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