Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

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.

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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.

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