A troubling relationship

The ever fractious relationship between the UK and European Union seems to be at breaking point, or so it seems if you listened to the Eurosceptic’s of the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party has come a long way from the days of Sir Winston Churchill, who is held up in Europe as one of the fathers of the present European Union, to more recent times were the party has ripped itself apart on the issue of Europe.

Recently the leader of the Conservative Party in Brussels Richard Ashworth MEP said “we’re making ourselves look pretty darned unattractive” as a partner in the EU. There comes a part where the UK will have to decide whether it wants to involved in the legislation that becomes UK law or sit at the sidelines where it will have no power and influence.

David Cameron has been resisting so far the call from the right of his party for a referendum, however, with the rise of UKIP in recent polls, to the status of third, has put tremendous pressure on his leadership.
Europe has become a toxic issue within the Conservative Party since the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, surprising given that it was Ted Heath and the Conservatives who led the UK into the EU. However, the European project has radically changed since the UK first joined with the focus has switching from economic to political.

In Europe there is also a straining of relations little by little the patience is wearing thin. Nations such as Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, which share Britain’s free trade outlook or its Atlanticist foreign policy, have no wish to sit in the same boat when Britain obstructs EU business. There is also little appetite from European leaders or scope for an extensive renegotiation: Britain already has many opt-outs, and demands for even looser membership might open a Pandora’s box. Should other countries follow the UK lead, it would undermine the more integrated Europe that is seen, in most EU capitals, as the key to stabilising the economy and enhancing Europe’s weight in the world.

Cameron is expected to make a key speech on the UK’s role in Europe on 22 January.He has not yet given details about the speech, but there is speculation that he will propose a referendum, to be held after the UK election in 2015. Though it has been reported that the PM thinks that it would be mad for the UK to leave Europe. If a referendum does happen we need politicians to make clear arguments on the pros and cons to inform the public on Europe, most people do not know who is their MEP let alone how Europe works!

In recent weeks there has been senior politicians in the US and Germany warning against the UK leaving the EU. The American intervention in particular is interesting as the UK puts great weight on its “Special Relationship” with the USA. Cameron was supposed to be pleased at President Obama sending a clear signal that the White House is opposed to the UK leaving.

For many countries, a British exit would bring to life an uncomfortable modern version of the long-buried “German question”: how to maintain a stable European balance of interests with an ever more powerful Germany, a less influential France and a Britain retreating into its shell. The primary reason for creating a European Union was to keep in check German influence and power but with Germany now central to the future of Europe both politically and economically it has all the power.

Few, including the Germans, want matters to reach such a point. To their disappointment, Mr Cameron’s speech may push Europe closer towards it and directly play into the hands of the Eurosceptics in his party and beyond.

This is the joint profile of Aaron Callan and Brian John Spencer, Northern Ireland’s finest purveyors of the weekly overview: “The Comment on the Week”

Actively Tweeting from @acallan87 and @brianjohnspencr

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think Cameron is playing some sort of clever and possibly rather ingenious tightrope act, temporarily buying the compliance of the Eurosceptics with the promise of a referendum, while not specifying what the question will be or when it will occur.

  • iluvni

    He’ll not fool anyone with another ‘cast iron guarantees’ of a referendum at some date in the future.

  • Harry Flashman

    “a Britain retreating into its shell”

    Because of course the only logical conclusion of Britain breaking free of an artificially contrived, bankrupt, inward-looking political union with a massive demographic and debt cliff looming is that Britain would be retreating.

    Not liberating itself from the incestuous politics and economics of Europe and freeing itself up to trade on its own terms with the rest of the world and make its own laws like any other sovereign nation.

    Britain’s “Little Englander” policy of retaining its own currency and making financial and economic decisions based on its own national self interest has been the unequivocal disaster the Europhiliacs said it would be hasn’t it?

    I mean, just ask Ireland.

  • I personally would prefer it if the UK remained in the EU. However, I think it has now reached the point where having a referendum is in the National interest.

    The rise of UKIP’s popularity is destabilising. It increases political uncertainty. Prolonged uncertainty is actually worse for trade and growth than the certainty of being either inside or outside the EU.

    If (as I suspect will happen) Cameron announces that he will attempt to renegotiate and repatriate some of the EU powers, he will get nowhere with that and ultimately do the pro EU cause no good if a referndum is later held.

    Better to be decisive now and get the referendum out of the way.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well have to see what the 22nd brings, but if there is to be a referendum AFTER the next general election, that might just successfully kill it, if the Tories lose office since Labour might argue there’d be no such mandate for such an event.

    If they don’t it could start to get very interesting.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t see how there will ever be a referendum which satisfies the Eurosceptics. We are talking about maximum 100 MPs out of 650. The Liberal Democrats are not going to sit there and let the Tories play with matches just to appease this rump wing, and neither for that matter are Labour.

  • Clanky

    Politically Cameron’s best hope is to have the referendum, campaign for Britain to remain in the EU and when (hopefully) the result is a massive vote in favour of continued EU membership, tell UKIP et al to sit down and shut up. While many will vote for UKIP as a way to register their dissatisfaction with Britains present place in Europe that would not translate into the same sort of numbers voting to leave the EU.

  • Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer piece yesterday was worth the effort.

    As for the speech next Tuesday (unless it suffers yet another chickening-out), I’d go with Nick Robinson’s succinct assessment:

    … there is a series of ifs:

    If he [Cameron] wins the next election alone (in other words doesn’t have to get this past Nick Clegg)
    If he can persuade other European countries, particularly Germany that they need and want treaty change
    If Britain can then get what it wants in negotiations
    If he thinks he can then win a referendum
    If all that happens, well then, yes, there will be a referendum which he thinks will approve a new better settlement for Europe.

    In other words, this is a speech for the Tory Party, to the Tory Party and about the Tory Party. The rest of us can watch and grin.

    For all the froth about UKIP and the wishful thinking (or what approximates it) at places where they spin (ConHome, the Spectator…), Big Business and the City have deep pockets, and can happily buy a referendum, were it to happen — as they did last time.