[Ed:This article was written late last night, albeit before details of Prime Minister's veto emerged from Brussels emerged.]
When David Cameron arrived in Brussels last night for the pre-Summit dinner of EU leaders, he may have sensed a certain frisson in the room. He missed out on the earlier gathering of most EU Heads of Government, who are members of the EPP (Christian Democrat) Euro-parliamentary group and held their own important caucus. Until Cameron became Tory Leader, the British Conservatives were members of the EPP, but in a blatant ploy to get backing from Euro-sceptics among Tory backbenchers, he pledged that he would withdraw from the group, which he duly did, marginalising not just his party but Britain in the process. The right-wing grouplet which then coalesced round the Tories, including some particularly unsavoury specimens from central and eastern Europe, has been something of a laughing stock ever since.
But Cameron’s positioning of Britain on the fringes of Europe’s centre of gravity is no joke. For much of the noughties, the Germans were begging the Brits to become a part of a triumvirate, who would be the real movers and shakers in an ever expanding Union. But instead, the Germans are left to share the steering role just with France. It’s no use the Press in this country bemoaning the fact that the Germans and the French are ruling the roost. We could have been in there as well, but yet again missed the chance. Angela Merkel will doubtless grudgingly offer her cheek to Cameron for a symbolic peck, but at heart she’d prefer to slap him.
Of course, the Prime Minister of Britani should stand up for this country’s interests. That’s what all EU leaders do. But there are acceptable ways and means of doing it. Succumbing to the xenophobic urgings of the Conservative Europhobes, as Cameron has given every sign of doing from his recent public utterings, is the exact opposite of what is needed. The Prime Minister should show real leadership and tell the likes of Tory MEPs Daniel Hannon and Roger Helmer to put a sock in it – or kick them out. Trying to steal UKIP’s clothes only helps UKIP.
There is no doubt that Europe is going through a difficult crisis, especially the 17-member eurozone. But that is not a reason to try macho posturing aimed mainly at pleasing the readers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.
Vowing on the eve of his departure for Brussels that he would veto any EU economic or fiscal changes that could endanger Britain’s interests, the PM was trying to sound like Mrs Thatcher at the height of her power. But let him be warned that he will look pretty foolish if he tries to swing a handbag at the EU Summit. Moreover, he is a lesser figure than the Iron Lady was. And let’s be honest, Britain is a lesser country now than it was in 1979.
Protecting Britain’s interests will not be achieved by driving the country firmly into a second tier or even a third tier of EU membership, while the core sort out their immediate problems and get on with the business of forming a powerful economic bloc that will be able to compete on equal terms with the United States and China, as well as emerging economies such as India and Brazil. Britain needs to be at the heart of Europe and to prove itself to be a constructive partner in the European project, even if it remains outside the eurozone for the foreseeable future (though I agree with Michael Heseltine than one day we will be in there, though it won’t be on our own terms).
The Liberal Democrats, as the junior partner in government, can and must play a pivotal role in drumming some sense into their Conservative big brother. To an extent, Nick Clegg and some of his colleagues have been doing that. But the moment has now come where LibDems have got to pin their Euro-colours firmly to the mast and tell David Cameron and his colleagues to stop being so short-sighted and – let’s be blunt – downright offensive to our continental allies. Their goodwill is vital to our future economic survival, as well as theirs.