Thursday

23rd May 2019

Opinion

David Cameron’s Europe Problem

  • Cameron is facing the same dilemma over Europe as his Conservative prime minister predecessors (Photo: number10.gov.uk)

In the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party held in the summer of 2005, David Cameron benefited from a reputation as a staunch eurosceptic. While being to his party’s modernising left on many issues, Cameron used the issue of Europe to send a clear signal to Tory traditionalists that he was on their side in the battle against Brussels' increasing influence over British political life.

Upon becoming leader, Cameron demanded a referendum on Britain’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, promising - in the party’s 2010 election manifesto - to significantly re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Only one year on from that election, Cameron faces a significant dilemma. On the one side, his Conservative party continues to restlessly pursue the dream of repatriating powers to the UK. The latest salvo from Conservative backbenchers was fired on Monday evening, with 81 Conservative MPs defying a government decree to vote against a referendum on EU membership. Embarrassingly for Cameron, while such a referendum would have offered UK voters the opportunity to leave the Union altogether, a second option would have allowed precisely the route promised in the party’s manifesto – a vote on re-negotiating the terms of Britain’s EU membership.

On the other hand, Cameron is well aware of the perils of the party's history of infighting over Europe. Divisions over the EU successfully brought to an end the careers of his two predecessors as Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, alienating much of the UK electorate in the process. Full membership of the Union is also a key commitment of the government’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. In recent weeks, they have resolutely fought efforts by Conservative ministers to attack European rules, the most recent example being the assault by the home secretary, Theresa May, on the influence of the European Convention of Human Rights on UK law. The issue of Europe, while low on the list of priorities for most voters, carries a unique capacity to spark a political fire within the governing coalition.

David Cameron’s instincts have been to defend the European project in far starker terms than many would have expected. In the House of Commons, prior to Monday’s vote, the prime minister argued: "When your neighbour’s house is on fire, your first instinct should be to help him put out the flames."

The UK government, he insisted, was committed to helping the Union tackle the single currency’s crisis, and thereby limit the risk of economic contagion to the UK. The prime minister has also reacted strongly to criticism of the UK’s role in the crisis from other EU leaders. In spite of heavy criticism from French President Nicolas Sarkozy that a government that "hates the euro" should not offer advice on its future, Cameron insisted that the UK and other non-euro member states should not be excluded from final negotiations on a further rescue package.

The paradox that Sarkozy was referring to – a UK government that professes to dislike the EU but nonetheless wants to exert greater influence within it – presents Cameron with a difficult balancing act for the future. Like many previous Conservative leaders, Cameron seems to have realised that playing a leading role in EU affairs is in the UK national interest.

The danger of the current reforms for the UK is that stronger integration among the euro-zone members could be to the UK’s long-term disadvantage. Long an advocate of a deeper internal market, the UK faces the prospect of EU economic policies being determined by the (potentially more protectionist) members of the core ‘euro-group’ before being negotiated by the full EU 27. In issues from trade to enlargement to security, immigration and defence, the UK has much to lose from a European club in which it is permanently out-voted by a cohesive ‘core’ of euro member states.

The more Cameron attempts to give the UK a leading role however, the more hypocritical he is likely to seem. While other EU governments can easily paint the UK as an unreliable friend – keen to benefit from a becalmed EU economy but not willing to make monetary sacrifices on its behalf – euro-sceptics can portray his efforts as a sell-out from that most basic Conservative cause – defending the sovereignty of the UK.

So far, Cameron’s response has been delaying tactics. He is, he insists, "firmly committed to bringing back more powers from Brussels"; he is simply not committed to doing it now. The Conservative Party’s restless backbench MPs may be waiting for some time.

Mark Dawson is assistant professor of European law at Maastricht University in the Netherlands

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Cameron faces tricky EU vote on Monday

British Prime Minister David Cameron has so far managed to keep his party’s tortured relationship with the EU in the background but a motion for EU referendum on Monday looks set to change this.

Sarkozy tells Cameron to 'shut up' on eurozone

Sharp tensions between Paris and London flared up on Sunday amid crisis talks on the eurozone, as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France hit out at British criticisms of the single currency.

Cameron tries to save face on mooted treaty change

A 'limited treaty change' will allow Britain to 'advance its agenda', British PM Cameron said Sunday after failing to stop EU leaders from opening that perspective, one day ahead of a key vote in the British parliament.

UK referendum vote highlights anti-EU feeling

British MPs have voted against a referendum on EU membership. But Prime Minister David Cameron indicated he will try to claw back EU powers in an upcoming review of the Treaty.

Voter turnout will decide Europe's fate

European voter turnout is in deep crisis. Since the early 2000s, the share of voters in national elections has fallen to 66 percent on average, which means that the birthplace of democracy now ranks below average globally.

Can Tusk go home again?

The opposition may not be able to defeat the rulling PiS without him, but if Donald Tusk wants to go home again, he will first have to remember where he came from.

News in Brief

  1. UK sacked defence secretary backs Johnson for leader
  2. Dutch voter turnout so far slightly down on 2014
  3. Report: Hungary's Fidesz 'bought' Belgian official
  4. Poll: Denmark set to double number of liberal MEPs
  5. European brands 'breaking' chemical safety rules
  6. Report: Merkel was lobbied to accept EU top job
  7. May struggling to get Brexit deal passed at fourth vote
  8. German MPs show interest in 'Magnitsky' sanctions

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Latest News

  1. Polling booths open in UK's limbo EU election
  2. Dutch PM puts EU exit on agenda with election gamble
  3. EU development aid used to put European police in Senegal
  4. EU should stop an insane US-Iran war
  5. EU faces moment of truth at midnight on Sunday
  6. Dutch MPs: EU sanctions should bear Magnitsky name
  7. Far-right hate speech flooded Facebook ahead of EU vote
  8. Key details on how Europeans will vote

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us