Monday, 5 October 2009

Cameron seeks to get out of Euro tangle he didn't need to get in to.

It is a shame that the Conservative conference gets underway this morning under something of a cloud, cast by the Lisbon Treaty. It is the Tories’ chance to set out, in detail, domestic policy which the party hopes will carry it in to government. The agenda focuses on themes which David Cameron would wish to emphasise: reform of a discredited political system, repair of an amoral, debt burdened economy, the broken society and how to mend it, the Union and its maintenance.

In the aftermath of the Republic of Ireland’s treaty referendum, however, the media, and arguably elements of Cameron’s own party, remain preoccupied with Europe.

Although this blog has argued that the Conservative leader’s instincts on the EU are sound, it has also recorded scepticism as regards Cameron’s strategies. The construction of a non-federalist, centre right bloc, intended to challenge the christian democratic continental consensus, was a laudable aim. Conferring a degree of legitimacy upon populist, ethno-nationalist parties in former Warsaw Pact countries is, to my mind, an unacceptable by product of the ECR group.

As regards Lisbon, Cameron has legitimate doubts. He is right to insist that the Treaty does not have the support of the British people and he is right to suppose that it constitutes a further erosion of the UK’s sovereignty. When the treaty is implemented, there will be less accountability, and power will reside even farther from the electorate, than is currently the case. The pertinent question is whether these valid concerns can justify any attempt to withdraw the UK’s assent, supposing each of the member countries has ratified the treaty before the general election?

Hardened Eurosceptics’ answer is ‘yes’. And they are numerous amongst the grassroots of Cameron’s party. More pragmatic voices caution against such action, suggesting that a decision to withdraw Britain’s ratification, based on the result of a referendum, would have baleful consequences for the UK’s membership of the EU. It appears increasingly likely that pragmatism will prevail, as it surely should. Cameron is then likely to face accusations of breaking his inconvenient promise that a Tory government would not let Lisbon ‘rest’.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has recommended a possible compromise, whereby some type of ‘consultation’ with voters could take place, perhaps leading to a Conservative attempt to repatriate certain powers from Brussels. Cameron will be keen to mollify possible Eurosceptic critics within his own party; however a pledge to wrangle with the EU for much of his first term is hardly an ideal means to secure their acquiescence. Tactical truculence in Europe is likely to distract a Tory government from its important domestic tasks and it is sure to damage the UK’s standing within a Union which, the new Conservatives accept, is vital to our interests.

The truth is that Cameron should not have to extricate himself from this EU tangle. It was the current government that ratified the Lisbon Treaty, breaking its promise to consult British voters. It isn’t a problem which the Conservatives can rapidly put right and the party need not pretend that it can. There are an almost infinite set of challenges which will present themselves to an incoming government, many of which are possible to tackle immediately. They are what the party’s conference should be concentrating on this week.

6 comments:

Kevinho said...

Why oppose the Lisbon Treaty? A stronger Europe is a better Europe, and the Lisbon Treaty proposes to strengthen the role of the EU Parliament, making it closer to the electorate and less of a waste of money.

So funny that the Tories Achilles heel has returned when they least expected it.

Chekov said...

On one hand the treaty extends the power of codecision. On the other it establishes an unelected European President and, effectively, an EU foreign minister. It's a very very hard sell to claim that strengthening a bureaucratic behemoth will save money or increase accountability.

fair_deal said...

Cameron trembles when the europhiles assemble

Kevinho said...

Erm, except that the said 'European President' is no such thing, but merely a proposal to have someone carry out an administrative non-executive role as President of the European Council. The role is intended simply to organise and chair meetings of that body. Its not a European 'President' anymore than the existing President of the European Commission is. On that note, the proposal to reduce the size of the Commission has to be be a good thing.

I don't see how you can support a United Kingdom, which we formed to gain strength in numbers on the one hand, and oppose closer union with Europe at the same time. After all both projects are about breaking down negative nationalisms and creating a wider, peaceful trading area while giving us a more powerful voice in the world.

Chekov said...

Erm, except that the said 'European President' is no such thing, but merely a proposal to have someone carry out an administrative non-executive role as President of the European Council.

It’s a very clear attempt to personify the EU, to the rest of the world, in the shape of one person. That’s why a high profile name like Blair is in the ring.

I don't see how you can support a United Kingdom, which we formed to gain strength in numbers on the one hand, and oppose closer union with Europe at the same time. After all both projects are about breaking down negative nationalisms and creating a wider, peaceful trading area while giving us a more powerful voice in the world.

This is a common affliction, the allegation that unionism, taken to its logical conclusion, should try and conglomerate the greatest number of nations possible in one state. It is a simplification.

The UK is an existing sovereign state, with democracy which is by no means perfect, but works, by and large. Its members are drawn together by common history and are happy to subscribe, by and large, to a common political identity.

The EU is not yet possessed of any of these qualities, and its most salient feature is that power is not drawn directly from the electorate, and is instead allocated on a territorial basis. It’s fair enough to say that it can develop towards a more representative system, or that it can develop characteristics in terms of history, political identity etc. which the UK does possess, but those features aren’t yet there.

It is quite possible, by the way, for the EU to provide a peaceful trading area and break down nationalisms, without indulging the overwhelming urge to centralise.

The influence argument is slightly different but exemplifies the manner in which states’ voices risk being lost. I actually favour the German approach to relations with Russia, but it’s hard to envisage how a common position on issues like that can be formulated, which even roughly reflects the differences of opinion within the EU.

Worth reading Alex Benjamin's account of how working at Brussels turned the most hardened Europhile into a Euro realist.

Kevinho said...

President - I'd argue that surely anything that makes the EU higher profile is a good thing, because I agree that it is presently a faceless bureaucracy. If the 'face' of it is Tony Blair, who I agree is not an ideal candidate, at least the press will have to cover what happens in the EU much more than they do at present.

As for the common history and political affiliation argument, you make a fair argument, but as a professional historian I would argue that we do tend to see the UK as part of the European sphere, whether we like it or not. Historically we were not Eurosceptic until the First World War encouraged anti-Germanism - then we, along with the rest of the world, turned in on ourselves. If the UK had got in on the ground floor when the EU was being established instead of always dragging out feet we would have been able to call the shots a lot more. We need to make sure we get as much influence as possible in Europe so that we get the best deal at the next treaty - this won't be achieved by opting out again and sitting on the sidelines.