Going by the general buzz and a growing sense of fatalism in the Labour Party as the general elections near, it looks like only a matter of months before the Conservatives return to power in Britain after 13 years.
Going by the general buzz and a growing sense of fatalism in the Labour Party as the general elections near, it looks like only a matter of months before the Conservatives return to power in Britain after 13 years. Already, they have started behaving (and are being treated) as the government-in-waiting, lining up their benefactors for high positions and issuing warnings on what would and would not be “acceptable” under a Tory administration.
William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative party who led it to one of its most humiliating election defeats in 2001 and is tipped to become Foreign Secretary when his boss David Cameron moves into Downing Street, provoked anger in European capitals recently when he threatened Britain’s European Union allies over the choice of the EU’s first President. Any backing for the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, he warned, would be regarded as a “hostile act” by a Tory government.
For a party, which is still in the Opposition and could yet lose its way on the polling day, to speak in the sort of imperious tone Mr. Hague did — in what appeared an attempt to dictate to the democratically elected governments — was deeply resented in Europe. It was seen by many EU leaders as bad form and raised concerns about the Tories’ style. And they have reason to be wary of a Tory government because the Tories’ opposition to a Blair presidency, which now seems doomed anyway because of other factors though Mr. Hague has been quick to claim credit for it, is part of their broader hostility to the EU itself — more specifically to the Lisbon Treaty that created the post.
Europe has always been a toxic issue with the Tories and nearly wrecked the party in the 1990s. Since then, it has changed in many ways or has, at least, acquired a new image under Mr. Cameron. But on Europe, it is still stuck in the past. Close Tory observers point out that the party is “nowhere more united than in its Euroscepticism” and the issue is not going to go away. Even if, for now, Mr. Cameron is able to buy peace by appealing to his colleagues not to rock the boat when the party looks so close to power, fears of a civil war erupting again will remain very real if a Cameron government is seen to be “retreating” on his pledge to hold the Tory line on Europe.
As The Economist pointed out, as far as the Tories are concerned, “Europe can never die; Euroscepticism is too essential an element of too many Tories’ conservatism.” Besides, the journal added, “The incoming bunch of Tory candidates will create easily the most (Euro-) sceptical parliamentary cadre ever. What happens when Mr. Cameron disappoints them?”
The writing on the wall is already there: two leading Tory members of European Parliament have resigned as party spokesmen in protest at what they see as a “climbdown” by Mr. Cameron on his promise to call a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after he announced that holding a referendum no longer made sense as the Treaty had already been ratified by all 27 member-states, including Britain.
Mr. Cameron may have dropped the idea of a referendum, sensibly realising its absurdity, but in his bid to appease the hardliners he has ended up taking decisions that have put his party on a collision course with the rest of the EU. One is to leave the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament and join a marginal alliance of far-right parties which have been accused of anti-Semitism and homophobia. The decision (again a brainchild of Mr. Hague) has made Mr. Cameron a laughing stock in Europe and isolated his party.
In another divisive move, aimed at placating the party’s Europhobic grass roots, he has threatened that his government will repatriate some of the powers that, according to the Tories, Labour ceded to the EU at the cost of Britain’s national sovereignty. These relate mainly to the social chapter involving EU-wide policies on employment and social policy. The announcement has sparked a backlash across Europe with even the Irish Republic, the Netherlands and Poland, which one newspaper described as “historically the friendliest to Britain in the EU,” reacting angrily to what they regard as effectively a declaration of war on the EU.
French Foreign Minister Pierre Lellouche accused the Tories of “castrating” Britain’s position within the EU. He used an interview with The Guardian to launch an extraordinary attack on the Tories’ position on Europe describing it as “pathetic.” He singled out Mr. Hague for criticism saying he suffered from “a very bizarre sense of autism.”
“It’s pathetic. It’s just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just getting itself from the rest and disappearing from the radar map ... They are doing what they have done in the European Parliament [by leaving the mainstream centre-right group]. They have essentially castrated your U.K. influence in the European Parliament.” There has been a similarly angry reaction from other leaders with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Markel said to be extremely irritated by the EU-bashing. A senior member of the Franco-British Friendship group is reported as saying that Mr. Lellouche was speaking for all EU members when he urged the Tories to take a more grown-up view of Britain’s relations with Europe. It has been made clear to the Tories that there is no question of reopening old agreements and that they should stop harping on it.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans bluntly summed up the message to the Tories, saying there was “more chance of a snowball surviving hell than the EU restarting debates on treaty change.”
There is an irony in the situation that the Tories find themselves in because of their anti-European stance. At a time when centre-right parties are running governments in most of the major European countries — France, Germany, Italy, and Poland among others — the Tories should be their natural allies. Instead, their Europhobia has put them at odds with their ideological bedfellows.
Meanwhile, even as the European leaders are bracing brace themselves for daily clashes with Britain in the event of the Tories coming to power, at least they know where they will stand vis-À-vis a Tory government. Which should make it relatively easy for them to define their own approach towards Britain after their experience with a Labour administration, which spoke in a deceptively ambiguous tongue — professing to be pro-Europe but, in practice, extremely suspicious and patronising. And when the chips were down — as most controversially over Iraq — Britain’s Labour government chose Washington over Paris or Berlin.
Europe has not forgotten how Mr. Blair defied his European allies to support the American invasion of Iraq. Not only that, he revelled in the public humiliation heaped on Europe by Washington hawks led by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who contemptuously dismissed Germany and France as “Old Europe,” which had lost its relevance.
Iraq apart, for a party which came to office vowing to put Britain at the “heart of Europe,” Labour’s record on Europe has been pathetic. Far from pushing Britain closer to Europe, it has spent most of its 12 years in office lecturing its European allies, negotiating opt-outs for Britain from various EU policies and laying down “red lines.” The result: Britain is the only major EU-member country today which has refused to join either the euro-zone or the Schenegan visa regime making it the odd man out in Europe.
The argument that Mr. Blair was held back by the Eurosceptics in his party sounds more like an excuse considering how he bulldozed his party into supporting him on other contentious issues such as part-privatisation of public services. The truth is that Mr. Blair and his inner circle lacked the political will to push the case for euro.
For much of his time in Downing Street, he displayed a slightly sniffy attitude towards Europe while bending over backwards to please America. Not surprisingly, the chickens have come home to roost now that he is angling for the EU presidency. Even his best friend, Mr. Sarkozy, has turned his back on him in the face of hostile opposition to his candidacy from other EU leaders, cutting across the left-right divide. The post now increasingly looks like going to the little-known Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy.
In a sense, Britain as a nation is not exactly in love with the EU which is seen as an attempt to create a “super state” by taking away the national sovereignty of member-states. So, whether it is Labour or Tories, Brussels will always find itself arguing with London. With the Tories in power, though, it will be more of a slanging match than a civilised argument. Which explains why alarm bells are ringing across the Channel.
Whether it is Labour or Tory, Brussels will always find itself arguing with London. With the Tories in power, though, it will be more of a slanging match than a civilised argument.