Tories on collision course with EU

By Paul Taylor
July 22, 2009

paul-taylor– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Pacta sunt servanda. For centuries international law has rested on the Latin principle that agreements must be kept.

Now Britain’s Conservative party, widely expected to win power in a general election next year, is vowing to go back on the country’s signature on European Union treaties. The Tories say voters were denied a promised referendum on the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty. Opponents of closer European integration — the Conservatives and the more radical UK Independence Party (UKIP) — won most of Britain’s seats in the European Parliament elections last month.

If implemented, the Tory policy would set a government under David Cameron on a collision course with its European partners that could harm Britain’s wider political and economic interests, which rely on EU cooperation and leverage.

The Conservatives have already taken a first step away from the centre-right mainstream by quitting the European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest group in the European legislature, and forming a caucus with nationalists and sceptics from Poland, the Czech Republic and other mostly east European countries.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, a fellow centre-right leader from a moderately Eurosceptic country, lamented that step and told The Guardian newspaper Cameron will need mainstream European partners to achieve his objectives, including on climate change. He is right.

The Tories have said that if they take office before all 27 EU states ratify the Lisbon treaty, they will call a referendum on withdrawing British ratification, which was completed by parliament last year. That would put the government in the unprecedented position of campaigning against a treaty which Britain had already signed and ratified.

It could take Britain back to the isolation of John Major’s last Conservative government. Major stopped cooperating with the EU in 1996 after British beef exports to the continent were banned over mad cow disease.

But there is a chance that disaster may be averted. Cameron must be secretly hoping that Irish voters approve the treaty in a second referendum in October and the Eurosceptic Polish and Czech presidents then sign it, averting an immediate crisis for a new Conservative administration.

If Lisbon is already in effect, the Tories say: “We would not let matters rest there.” This deliberately vague phrase gives Cameron some wiggle room. Conservative leaders have said they would demand a negotiation to return EU powers over social affairs, employment, fisheries and some aspects of justice and home affairs to national level.

That would cause a clash at Cameron’s first EU summit, since it is highly unlikely that any of Britain’s partners will agree to open talks on repatriating major competences from Brussels.

Cameron is deluding himself if he thinks Britain can expect Paris or Berlin to cooperate on financial regulation, policy towards Iran and the Middle East, carbon trading or free trade if it is at loggerheads with all its EU partners on the treaty. The United States has often made clear that Britain’s influence in Washington is directly proportionate to its influence in Europe. Britain’s neutral civil service has been conveying that message privately to the Conservatives.

The danger of a UK-EU confrontation comes at a time when London has a strong interest in shaping European regulation of financial markets to preserve the position of the City of London, which generated some 10 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product before the financial crisis. Britain does some 60 percent of its trade with the EU.

Cameron has modernised his party and shifted it towards the pragmatic centre on a swathe of policies from gay marriage to the environment and public services. But he has used Europe as one area on which he can throw red meat to the party faithful, and protect his right flank against inroads by UKIP. He promised to withdraw from the EPP when he ran for party leader in 2005.

Cameron is seeking to balance shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, who lost a 2001 election on an anti-European platform, and pro-European cabinet veteran Kenneth Clarke, whom he brought back to the front bench for his economic competence.

Clarke said recently a Tory government would not reopen the Lisbon treaty if the Irish ratified it, and would seek instead a practical arrangement on repatriating employment rights. He was swiftly denounced by Eurosceptics in the party.

True, the governing Labour party has failed in 12 years in office to achieve Tony Blair’s objective of putting Britain at the heart of Europe, and reconciling the British with the EU.

Blair achieved some progress on EU defence cooperation and economic reform. But he never used his political capital to win public backing for taking Britain into the euro, despite his personal support for the objective. His successor, Gordon Brown, no fan of the euro, has warmed to the EU somewhat since the financial crisis struck.

Public opinion, as Blair acknowledged before he resigned, remains as Eurosceptic as ever. Grassroots Conservative members are even more hostile, as are some big Tory donors.

That constrains Cameron’s room for manoeuvre. But if he wants to maximise Britian’s international influence and avoid his first term being blighted by conflict with Europe, he should brush up his Latin and declare “pacta sunt servanda”.
(Editing by David Evans)

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