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.