Blair and Cameron: Two Peas in a European Pod, 14th Nov 2014

A Personal View from Brendan Donnelly, 14th November 2014

It is sometimes said that David Cameron regards Tony Blair as his political model. The European policies of the two Prime Ministers may appear superficially very different. Mr. Blair presented himself as fundamentally favourable to the European Union, and Mr. Cameron is at best unenthusiastically and conditionally acquiescent in continued British membership of the Union. But the underlying similarities of their approach to the Union, both in public presentation and in long term outcomes are undeniable. Both have framed their European policies almost exclusively in terms of a tactically convenient “triangulation” between two rejected extremes of European policy. In both cases this contentless “triangulation” led to an inevitably unstable European policy, tending remorselessly towards greater British hostility towards the European Union.

Although personally in favour of British membership of the European single currency, Mr. Blair regularly and disingenuously presented his view of the matter as perching happily between two irrational propositions, that of joining the euro immediately and that of never joining the euro.  He would only recommend joining the single currency if it were in Britain’s economic interest to do so. Mr. Blair did nothing however by way of economic or political preparation to make more likely the British membership of the single currency that he favoured. His policy on the euro was in truth nothing more than an exercise in rhetorical self-positioning. He was content to allow events and Gordon Brown to take the decision out of his hands. More generally, Mr. Blair liked to speak of the need for broader “reform” of the European Union, sometimes in the direction of greater economic liberalization, sometimes in the direction of less integration through the European institutions. By these complaints about the European status quo, Mr. Blair sought to give himself political cover against those accusing him of excessive enthusiasm for the European Union. Although presented in much less truculent and ultimative terms than the emerging present demands of Mr. Cameron towards his European partners, Mr. Blair’s repeated insistence that the European Union needed to be reformed was part of a domestic political balancing act very similar in its nature to what Mr. Cameron is now trying to accomplish. It is worth recalling that the final trajectory of Mr. Blair’s government in its European policy was to move towards the Euroscepticism of Jack Straw, under whose influence Mr. Blair agreed to hold a referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty and postpone free movement for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens when their countries entered the European Union.

Mr. Cameron’s European policy is every bit as much as Mr. Blair’s one of “triangulation.” He seems reluctantly to accept that it would be gravely damaging for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. He knows however that many, perhaps most of his party disagree.  His response to this political dilemma was to construct in his Bloomberg speech of January 2013 a compromise with the rest of his party that he hoped would remain intact until after the General Election of May, 2015.  According to this implausible compromise, Britain would remain a member of the European Union, but it would be a radically different European Union, purged of those elements that made it unacceptable to most Conservative opinion.  Mr. Cameron would bring about this radically different European Union after he had been reelected in 2015 and he would rely on the support of his many friends in the European Union, notably Mrs. Merkel, to effect the changes necessary to reconcile the Conservative Party to Britain’s continued membership of the Union.

It is an indication of the strange, insular nature of the European debate in this country that this implausible compromise is only now showing signs of falling apart. Britain’s partners in the European Union had gained the impression from British ministers and officials that a reelected Conservative government would content itself with minor changes to the terms of British membership of the Union, an enterprise upon which they might well have been willing to help Mr. Cameron.  Under pressure from UKIP, his backbenchers and the Daily Mail, Mr. Cameron has however now been forced to reveal more of his negotiating hand, including his Party’s hostility to the principle of free movement, a fundamental pillar of the European Union. It is difficult indeed to imagine that Mr. Cameron will obtain any satisfaction from his European partners on that issue. Sir John Major’s attempt to frighten the German government into concessions on the matter by threatening British withdrawal from the Union unless the principle of free movement is abandoned may well have precisely the opposite effect to that intended. Mrs. Merkel’s cool remarks to Der Spiegellast month about the possibility of Britain’s leaving the European Union reflect a growing German sentiment that there is no possibility of meeting the demands of a reelected Conservative government and that it may well be a waste of time to try.

Over the next six months, Mr. Cameron will face a severe challenge to the sustainability of his European policy within his own party. His first response to this challenge seems to be a reinforcement of his Eurosceptic rhetoric, implying in his speech to the CBI that he might not be prepared to advocate continued British membership of the European Union unless his “renegotiation” was successful. He and his Chancellor George Osborne have also attempted to present themselves over the past fortnight as facing down demands from their rapacious European partners for £1.7bn, a sum which would in any case have been cut in half by the operation of the British rebate mechanism without the posturing of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor.

The internal strains to which Mr. Cameron’s European policy are subjected were well illustrated by the Parliamentary debate on the European Arrest Warrant, an issue on which the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary had originally determined to face down their critics within their Party. If they had done so, they might well have been pleasantly surprised by the limited nature of the rebellion against them. In the event, they attempted by a procedural manoeuvre to avoid a specific vote on the Warrant, in a way that caused unnecessary confusion and bad temper. Such irresolution and uncertainty are the inevitable consequences of a European policy that is of its nature an entirely volatile and opportunistic one. It can only be a matter for conjecture whether this volatility leads to further explosions before the General Election. Nature abhors a vacuum and a vacuum is what British policy towards the European Union has been for the past twenty years.

 

Postscript (1 December)

Mr. Cameron’s speech about immigration on 28th November conforms faithfully to the pattern described above. He has stopped short of the most extreme and most obviously unattainable position that he might have adopted, namely seeking a cap on immigration from the rest of the European Union. He has however come nearer than ever before to an undertaking to campaign for Britain to leave the Union if his demands with regard to migration are not met in his projected “renegotiation.”

In effect, Mr. Cameron has now embraced the underlying argument of UKIP that there are too many citizens from the European Union currently in the United Kingdom. He claims to be able to achieve the goal which he shares with UKIP, of reducing these numbers, by indirect rather than direct means. To do this he proposes measures which are clearly discriminatory against citizens from the European Union working in this country. Mr. Cameron’s partners in the Union had made clear to him before his speech their absolute refusal to countenance the abandonment of the freedom of movement within the Union. He should not however assume that his partners will be prepared to allow him to undermine this fundamental principle through indirect and discriminatory measures in future designed to dissuade non-British citizens of the EU from coming to work in this country. The analysis of some political commentators that Mr. Cameron has “stepped back from the brink” in this speech can only be accepted with considerable caution. He continues to reduce his options for the future in his European policy,  even if at a lesser pace than some of his supporters might have wished.