Tory MPs may have agreed not to panic in
the light of Ukip’s big win, but that doesn’t mean David Cameron
isn’t going to come under a huge amount of pressure from them in the coming
days and weeks to do something, anything, to show he’s got the message. One
of their demands is bound to be that the Prime Minister not only bring
forward the date of any referendum – but also spell out in more detail
exactly what it is he wants out of his renegotiation of the UK’s
relationship with the EU.
In fact, of course, the kind of EU which Cameron – indeed, all Tory moderates
and pragmatists – would feel reasonably content to belong to should be no
mystery to anyone by now. After all, he himself set it out in his Bloomberg
speech in January 2013. He still wants what he said he wanted back then,
namely a 21st Century EU that is “a means to an end – prosperity, stability,
the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores
– not an end in itself.”
In other words, it’s an EU which stresses internal and external competition,
which acknowledges diversity and operates rules and structures that don’t
discriminate against those member states not signed up to full-blown
currency, banking, and fiscal union. It makes sure that things better done
domestically are not being done by Brussels and, if they are, makes moves to
put things right.
So far, so easy. But what is more difficult for Conservatives like Cameron who
remain broadly in favour of continued membership is what the UK should do if
this isn’t the kind of European Union that the other 27 member states
actually want or at least feel can be achieved.
For the moment, if he has done nothing else, Cameron has postponed any
immediate need to come up with an answer to this awkward question. He has
also, with a little help from Angela Merkel, been able to give the
impression that the UK, in its bid to renegotiate its relationship and
repatriate powers, is not without friends and allies.
But anyone who can resist the lure of wishful thinking or is halfway familiar
with the countries in question – Germany, the Nordics, some of the
post-communist member states – knows that, forced to choose, they will
choose Europe over helping out their new best friend. Unlike the UK, or at
least unlike the Conservative Party, they see no going back even if they
would like to see some serious changes made.
That is not to say, however, that they will not give a little. The
Conservatives’, the country’s and indeed the continent’s best hope is surely
some sort of deal done on the basis of devolving powers that a decent
majority of member states agree need devolving.
The problem will come if Cameron concludes that the only deal worth having (or
at least worth trying to sell back home) is based on Britain getting
something that most other member states don’t get. Not unreasonably, they
will see special treatment of that kind as freeriding and therefore won’t
agree. The same goes for a deal which involves unpicking budgets or serious
reform of the CAP. There are simply too many payees – and, whatever the UK
thinks, not enough seriously angry payers – to see that happen.
Sensible Conservatives – the kind who still believe they should be Britain’s
natural party of government rather than some sort of revolutionary vanguard
– know in their hearts what the party and the Prime Minister should do.
Starting with the vision of the EU he laid out in his Bloomberg speech, he
should figure out what other member states will put up with and then work
backwards from there, selling whatever that may be as just what he wanted in
the first place and exactly what the country really needs.
That will entail some seriously skilful behind-the-scenes (as opposed to
megaphone) diplomacy and, although nobody is talking about a full-blown
reconciliation, trying to rebuild some of the bridges that were burned by
leaving the EPP group in the European Parliament. The very least the Tories
can do on this score is not to allow their desperation to expand (or even
simply ensure the survival) their own ECR group to tempt them into offering
membership to the populist rivals of the mainstream centre-Right parties
whose support Cameron will need for any reform programme worth the name.
Most importantly, if the Prime Minister wants to keep Angela Merkel onside
anyway, they mustn’t touch the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with a
None of this is pure. Nor is it pretty. But it is politics, at least as
practised in an increasingly interdependent continent – and in the real
world, too. Those Conservatives who prefer the fantasy version need to grow
up and get serious. Cameron’s problem, and therefore Europe’s problem,
however, is what his party needs to do and what it actually does are too
often two very different things.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and
author of The
Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron
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