Friday, 11 January 2013

Cameron is in trouble over Europe: we can win this debate

David Cameron has suffered two heavy blows this week, as both the USA and Germany strongly criticised his comments on the UK’s future role in the EU. This follows weeks of media speculation about Cameron’s upcoming speech on Europe – which even Nick Clegg wants no part of - where he’s widely expected to say that he will use a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty to repatriate political powers from Brussels, provided he gets a majority in 2015. Some hope he’ll also announce plans for the long awaited in/out referendum.

Obama’s assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip Gordon, reminded Cameron on Wednesday that the ‘special relationship’ would be considerably less important to the USA if the UK decided to break away from Europe. On Thursday, the chair of Germany's European affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum - who is visiting the UK this week – waded in to the fray, pointing out that ‘you cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states’.  These stern-sounding warnings provide a contrast to the soothing words of Herman Van Rompuy, who has spent the past few weeks patiently reassuring the UK that we’re loved and respected in the EU, like a parent speaking to a petulant teenager who has just huffed upstairs and slammed their bedroom door.

Cameron imagines that the UK can emulate Switzerland, and enjoy the benefits of the common market while staying out of the political arena. But there’s no reason to think that the treatment enjoyed by Switzerland or Norway – who, after all, might eventually fully join – will be extended to a state which undermines the whole EU project at a critical point in its history by flouncing off. There’s something very cynical and self-serving in seeking to renegotiate the terms now, when the EU is in turmoil and its future is uncertain.

There’s a case to be made that an in/out EU referendum at some point in the future a good idea – if nothing else, it would put the question to rest for another few decades, until the European project evolves into its next stage. And after the dust settles on the Eurozone crisis, it will be possible to see what – if anything – we’d be voting to join or leave. But between now and then, EU supporters need to make their case clearly, loudly and often. Further political integration with the other members is a clear path towards eventually plugging European tax havens, which would reduce the risk of capital flight, which would enable us to use progressive taxation. And - as both Clegg and the Obama administration pointed out this week - on all the major global questions, the UK without Europe will always be on the margins.

The consistent failure to make these arguments heard – over decades – has created the current toxic landscape, where the right wing media froth daily about ‘unelected bureaucrats from Brussels’, and otherwise sane people mistake UKIP for a legitimate protest vote. As anger mounts over the ineffectiveness and toe-curling unfairness of the austerity program, and Cameron’s Tories lag behind Labour in the polls, Cameron clearly needs all the support he can muster. But by trying to harness the baseless prejudice and deluded Empire-nostalgia that fuels most Euro-skepticism, he has made himself look ridiculous in front of the whole world.

Originally posted on Liberal Conspiracy on 11 January 2013

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