Sulking on the sidelines of Europe

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

David Cameron failed the UK by refusing to engage in debate on reform within EU.

Cameron fails to persuade EU leaders on Junker candidacy.

Far from proving that Britain has a power position at the top table of European politics, this week we have seen the humiliation of David Cameron as his continental counterparts overwhelmingly endorsed the appointment of Jean Claude Junker as the next president of the European Union.

Cameron’s refusal to negotiate was a catastrophic error that has left the UK without allies and added strength to the hand of the growing euro exit lobby headed by chief nay sayer Nigel Farage.

It was a calculated gamble on the part of the Conservatives to consolidate the domestic position of the centre right by scoring a victory in Brussels. If Cameron had been able to gain a concession from his partners across the Channel, his path to next May’s election would be a good deal smoother; his tough on Europe credentials would be intact, he would have undermined his detractors in the Labour party and he’d have buckled the wheels of the Farage bandwagon.

Instead, his strategy has backfired spectacularly and has provided UKIP further ammunition with which to attack on the ‘in-out’ referendum. These events highlight a serious lack of judgement within Cameron’s inner circle: both Holland and Sweden had already distanced themselves from the UK’s overtures, and had been clear they were not prepared to disrupt EU unity further for the sake of the prime minister’s point scoring exercise. Yet, with little encouragement or support, Cameron stubbornly stuck to his assertion that Junker was the wrong man to bring reform to the EU. The opposition to Junker’s candidacy was massively overstated; indeed the new EU president became the unwitting pawn in a wider game designed to extract more bargaining chips for the UK and a warmer reception from voters back home. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men ...

On one hand, some credit should be offered to the PM for breaking cover: Europe has been the elephant in the room for the UK’s political leaders since the last general election – everyone accepts there needs to be a serious debate on the future of our relationship with Brussels, unfortunately, all parties have studiously avoided being drawn into the ‘referendum quagmire’ before the next election.

However, that is the only plus that can be drawn from this, Cameron’s Euro travails shows how the government’s isolationist stance throughout the debt crisis has come home to roost, with our standing among our partners seriously weakened. It seems that whenever a decision goes against us, we either kick the ball into the long grass or take it home with us. 

The Eurozone is the United Kingdom’s chief trading partner, 50 % of all UK exports are with member states in Europe. Similarly, 52% of our imported goods are shipped in the continent – more than our trade ties with the US, Asia and Africa combined.

Britain has far more to lose by withdrawing from the EU than staying in, that isn’t to say we must stay because it is the safe option; we can only influence if we engage and by sitting on the outside looking in, we do neither.  

In the meantime, Nigel Farage is having a field day at the expense of Labour and the Conservatives, espousing a mixture of immigrant scare stories and jingoistic John Bull tub thumping that helped UKIP make sweeping gains in local and European elections. Not in his wildest dreams would Farage have imagined that his party would make such prodigious gains in so short a space of time.

Has Farage offered any positive option for change? The answer to that is unclear. In the same way that Nick Clegg promised change and an alternative to the main parties (before he put ambition before principles and helped form a coalition with the Conservatives); so the UKIP leader has filled a vacuum and used it to forward his anti-Brussels bluster.

Few would argue that there does not need to be debate about the future role of the UK within the European Union, but that should never be presented as a black/white in out choice. To do so denies the massive achievements to healthcare, employment law and welfare that have all come as a result of active engagement with Brussels.

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