The European Question, and a Very British Answer

Andy Findon says Cameron’s gamble on Europe may prove fatal for the Tories.

In 1992, John Major faced down opposition from his own government and signed the Maastricht Treaty. Since then, the split amongst the Conservative Party over Europe has been largely dormant. Despite the outspoken voice of Ken Clarke, the party has rarely had an outlet for a debate which at one stage threatened to tear the Tories apart.

Just over a year into Cameron’s premiership however, the issue emerged as a potential stumbling block to his leadership and demonstrated once more how British attitudes toward Europe are complicated and confused. The most visual manifestation of disillusionment with the Conservative Party is the extraordinary rise of UKIP as a viable political force.

The situation itself is in many ways one of  Cameron’s own making, emerging from his drive for accountability of government and a ‘free and open democracy’ in 2011 a motion was tabled when the governments ‘e-petition’ received enough votes to call forward a debate on the European Union and a potential ‘In/Out’ referendum. Sooner or later this service was surely going to be used to ask a question the government would be at odds to answer.

The question of ‘Europe’ itself has received many column inches which I will not repeat here, but the situation in short stems from the changing nature of the Union. During the 1970s there was a greater need for economic integration, which saw free trade and a closer fiscal link with Europe formed along with a departure from the Commonwealth as a trading area. However many Euro-sceptics would argue, including Tory front-benchers such as William Hague and indeed Cameron himself, that the Union has become more about a political and social union rather than exclusively trade and economics. The devolution of powers to Brussels and the slow decay of individual liberties have made Europe an extremely sensitive subject and one which has dogged the Conservative party for decades. The Conservatives, representing the largest body of Euro-sceptics in parliament, draw many voters with a certain disposition on Europe and many will have seen this as an opportunity to finally have a say on the ‘European Question’.

However, once more the government gave a very British response, and chose to do nothing. The reasons behind Cameron’s three-line whip against the issue of a referendum were on the surface admirable. Trying to solve the European sovereign debt crisis whilst trying to stabilise Britain’s own fractious recovery are sensible enough, but he made one fatal mistake in making public his determination to face down potential rebels amongst his own party and hinting at his own inner torment over the issue. Cameron appeared torn between his own outward political stance on Europe and the realities of government in the present economic climate.

The Prime Minister could have allowed his Eurosceptic MPs to express their opinion in the knowledge that it would likely be faced down through opposition from pro-Europeans in the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Instead, by ordering his MPs to tow the party line, he has carved an opening for his political opponents to point-out his shortcomings as a political leader, unable to control his party though a three-line whip and unable to coherently communicate the government’s stance on a particular issue.

Then in 2013 Cameron was forced into a drastic U-turn, faced with the surge in support for UKIP, at last came the promise of a referendum, something the majority of voters were not alive or old enough to participate in during the 1970s. But alas, this too comes with the caveat that it will be held after the next general election where the Conservatives will likely fail once more to gain a majority or more likely be ousted by a resurgent Labour Party, who’s own pro-European stance would likely see the referendum swept under the carpet for ‘another day another time’. UKIP may have been branded a party of ‘closet racists’ and ‘lunatics’, something no doubt indented to damage the reputation of a party the Westminster elite are surely beginning to fear. Cameron and indeed Labour must now face the realisation that libertarianism is alive and well, and that UKIP may provide the only true party whose agenda for libertarian values and the withdrawal from the encroaching ‘United States of Europe’ can be taken seriously.

More than anything, the message sent out constantly to Europe is one of a Britain disillusioned and split over participation in a Union which is on its knees. Whatever the stance on this issue, Europhile or Eurosceptic, it is clear that the political body of Europe looks across the Channel with an increased sense of dismay at Britain’s toe in the water approach to European policy. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy was slammed for making comments about Britain constantly posturing and interfering in European affairs and yet it is forgivable to form this view, given the tepid approach to Europe on one hand, and the heavy handed confrontation and rhetoric by successive governments on the other.

It is clear that many in Britain agitate for reform, and to the member states of the Union it is obvious that Britain is not a fully-fledged loved-up member of the European experiment, preferring instead to heckle and shout from the side-lines. Whether voters class themselves as Eurosceptic or Europhile, Cameron could have proved his credibility on the issue by allowing the people to have their say before the next general election. Instead the so-called ‘repatriation of powers’ from Brussels was promised, but which powers and when, remains to be seen.

The question of Europe therefore remains unanswered in the short-term.  However, as the Eurozone struggles to find its feet amidst growing economic pressures from failing economies, most recently in Cyprus, again and again the issue of membership of the EU will raise its head. Eventually, Britain must decide whether to remain in the fledgling Union or to withdraw.  Given the current period of increased instability amid further calls for the United Kingdom to pump money into Europe, Cameron may well have been correct to declare it was the ‘wrong question at the wrong time’, but with UKIP waiting in the wings, for many in his party and indeed the country, the question must surely be ‘when is the right time if not now?’


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