As friends and foes line-up to stab Cameron in the back Alyn Smith, MEP on a very British mess: ‘The disparate and perhaps desperate elements of Cameron’s party allied to his obvious panic at the apparent rise of UKIP have forced him into places where he would have been wiser not to tread’ …
The Prime Minister is to speak, to give us his pearls of cultured wisdom on the future of the richest continent in the world. David Cameron is to tell us what plans he has for the European Union, how he sees the future rolling out before the continent which gave birth to so much of what has made the modern world; how the institutions which have given us peace for more than half a century and enabled free trade and social reforms should be reformed in his likeness. He is driven, perhaps, by destiny, the hand of history upon his shoulder; compelled, perhaps, by circumstance to be the one statesman to lay out a clear vision for all to follow; or jostled by the less relaxed members of his party into railing against the enemy without. As I watch the events unfold before me I can’t help but think that the spirit of Groucho Marx is running Downing Street’s European policy these days; I feel like a citizen of Fredonia watching Rufus T Firefly take us into international trouble we could really do without.
First Prime Minister Cameron had timed his speech on what is wrong with Europe for the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty which repaired relations between France and Germany and served as a new model of international cooperation and friendship. The venue for the speech has changed a few times as well, finally settling on Amsterdam, but having a fine perambulation through the Low Countries in the meantime. The substance of the speech – and therefore of the UK Government’s European policy – has had a similar slalom of chaos.
It was hinted that Cameron would be playing hardball, that he’d be laying down the law, telling Johnny Foreigner where to get off telling us what to do but that the ‘beating heart of Britain’ (no, he really did say it) knows we need to remain in the EU. Then there was a referendum to be had; a straightforward in or out decision which became a ‘reconfirmation’ vote. Brussels is, apparently, too much of an interfering and bossy establishment but also too remote – the confusion appears endless.
Cameron’s Government came into office with a promise to ‘repatriate’ powers from the EU; powers in the areas of policing and justice, social policy, and employment rights. Exactly which powers he wants to repatriate or how they were ‘seized’ isn’t clear, just that he wants them back! And, of course, that he’s not going to stand for any nonsense from these Europeans! There’s a big project underway in the corridors of power (or impotence when faced with those dastardly, interfering Brussels types) to examine the warp and weft of our integration with the EU and determine which bits should be extricated – an expensive operation to satisfy a strange island-dweller shaky fist emotion, I think.
Some of the more verbose members of the Prime Minister’s party have taken it upon themselves to demand more is repatriated than the yet-to-be-determined range of powers that are to be repatriated. We don’t know what the demands are yet, but they’re upping the ante – and to think that this is the mob that criticizes trade unions for their negotiating techniques! They want to end Brussels’ involvement in agriculture, fisheries and regional policy areas and they want to limit the movement of people, so not much, really, except the dismantling of the European project; a return to the old EFTA that the UK helped to set up – just trade agreements, nothing more, pull up the drawbridge, shut that tunnel, and let’s get serious with customs checks at the airports. There’s no way of telling what these foreigners will get up to, given half a chance!
On Friday Cameron can say what he likes, he and his team have created confusion and have managed to annoy our European partners without stepping towards a resolution. His speech will, no doubt, be compared to Thatcher’s Bruges speech but I think I will probably be contrasting it with the Thatcher speech – I don’t think he’ll be saying anything like her quite sensible observation that “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”
The disparate and perhaps desperate elements of Cameron’s party allied to his obvious panic at the apparent rise of UKIP have forced him into places where he would have been wiser not to tread. Olli Rehn, the Economic Affairs Commissioner described it in the terms he understands from his footballing days:
If I were a Briton in the EU, I would prefer to be in the midfield as a playmaker, rather than sitting on the sidelines as a substitute. You never score goals from the bench.
JoaquÍn Almunia, Commission vice president, said it would be “extremely difficult” for Cameron to renegotiate; “When you belong to a club you cannot be an influential member saying I don’t want to accept this provision”. A French diplomat, with typical French élan, said that the UK couldn’t expect to have an ‘a la carte’ Europe. A United |States diplomat said “every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges”. Finally, Ireland’s Enda Kenny, leading Ireland’s presidency of the EU, said the UK leaving would be “disastrous” while other Irish politicians indicated that European Governments were urging Cameron to desist (diplomat speak for “that’s never going to happen”).
He has insulted and annoyed our European partners, he has given our other allies around the world cause for concern, he has irritated those in his own Government and in his own party who see positive elements to our relationships with other EU countries, he has talked up and encouraged those who would like to see an end to our European relations (including UKIP), and he has promised what he cannot deliver. He has promised a renegotiated relationship with the EU which may be put to a referendum after the next UK general election in 2015 and has forgotten, it seems, that a negotiation, even if it’s a renegotiation, involves more than presenting your list of demands and walking away with your prize; it means reaching agreement with the others in the deal – 27 others from the summer of this year.
So Cameron may walk into and flounce out of more EU meetings, he may renegotiate to his heart’s content, he may grandstand and bluster, he may shout loudly and wave a small stick, but all he can get out of it is what the other 27 states agree to. That will be what he brings to a referendum and then he has to face the problem of what to do if he loses the vote in that referendum; what if his reconfirmation is refused?
This, then, is the UK’s European strategy/tactic/farce for the next while and it will leave us damaged, our reputation further sullied as being petulant in our dealings with our European neighbours, of being the state which will huff and puff and rage but do little to bring solutions to the table. There seems little doubt of that direction being the one that Cameron’s Government takes and that damages us; it damages our relations with other EU states, it damages our ability to drive through changes at the European level, and it makes it more difficult for us to retain trading links.
Scotland needs a different path, Scotland needs fuller involvement in European politics, Scotland needs politicians who will fight for her corner at all times, whose efforts on our behalf in the international arena will not be constricted by considerations of domestic politics and how to keep their own parties off their backs.
More than that, Scotland needs politicians who appreciate that Europe isn’t something “over there”, who appreciate that when they’re speaking in Holyrood they’re standing in Europe, when they’re in their constituencies they’re in Europe, and when they’re talking to other Europeans they’re talking to equals. I can’t see us getting that as part of the UK, I can only see us getting it as an independent nation. I have always considered my country to be an internationalist country at heart, a nation looking outwards, a country prepared to deal and to trade and to join hands across the oceans – I don’t see that in the UK.
Win Scotland in the referendum next year and re-establish our place in the world and our relationships with the rest of the world; or lose that referendum, remain part of the UK and hear ourselves singing “hail, hail Fredonia, land of the brave”.