Christopher Howarth, is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister. Follow Open Europe on Twitter.
If you find it difficult to predict the twists and turns of the Coalition’s EU policy, spare a thought for Britain’s potential European allies.
Yes, Britain has potential allies, and far more than it realises. We have never been “isolated” (a favourite expression for the EU status quo lobby), there are and have always been a number of states that share some or all of Britain’s basic focus on liberal economics and decentralisation, and in the other states the political elites’ centralising mantra conflicts with electorates who are universally more sceptical. There is fertile ground for those wishing to see a different type of EU, but it will not come about on its own. Europe needs a new vision, and the UK is its most credible potential champion. Unfortunately, the lack of a coherent UK vision is beginning to worry not only supporters of reform in Britain, but potential allies on the Continent.
Take the Coalition’s handling of the German-inspired fiscal pact. While Cameron was correct in asking for something in return for his signature to EU treaty changes, the handling of the negotiations was so opaque that two Parliamentary inquiries have still not worked out what the UK sought to achieve. Many non-euro states started off to a greater or lesser extent sceptical or split on whether to sign up to the pact, rightly feeling uncomfortable about signing away more powers over their budgets to the EU. At first, it looked as if the UK had secured a private deal with Germany, which would see the UK sign up in return for British ‘safeguards’ against the eurozone-17 making decisions for all 27 EU members in the future. But this then turned into a ‘veto’. Britain left the smaller states with an awkward decision, to say no, (potentially on their own) at a substantial political cost, or fall into line. One by one they fell into line, leaving the Czech Republic and Britain as the only non-signatories.
Smaller EU states, for obvious practical and diplomatic reasons, will not wish to stand up to France and Germany on their own. To illustrate, despite Cameron clearly having no intention of signing the fiscal pact, senior people in the Czech government still find themselves worrying that he might strike a deal with Merkel, leaving Prague alone as a non-signatory. Cameron is fond of telling the Czechs that his relative Duff Cooper resigned from Chamberlain’s cabinet over the 1938 Munich agreement. This is well remembered but it would be better if the UK, through active diplomacy, sought to alleviate fears among smaller states that their relationship with the UK is one-way, fluid and insubstantial. In the absence of a clear vision, the Government makes it easy for centralisers to peel away potential allies by portraying Britain as unreliable and secretly wishing to leave the EU.
So what has gone wrong? Firstly it is unclear who is in charge. We have a Europe Minister, David Lidington, who is likeable and capable but not in the Cabinet, and not a part of the Number 10 decision-making circle. In Number 10, there is no one person in control of ‘Europe’; William Hague, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Nick Clegg and Ed Llewellyn contend with numerous other issues. Europe can fall through the gaps relegated to a news, diary or party management issue (too often the latter). From outside, the UK’s policy looks unpredictable and momentary. Smaller states can end up feeling that the UK only calls when it wants something, such as a signature on a letter before a summit or a vote on legislation affecting the UK financial services – and the call often comes at the very last minute.
Secondly, as ever, there’s a lack of vision. We need a substantial, thought out and well-articulated vision of the UK’s place in the EU, based on the realisation that the UK (along with other states) needs a more flexible relationship, but that the UK cannot stop states such as France and Germany if they wish to integrate further. Open Europe, working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on EU reform, is currently laying out ideas for what this vision might be (see here, here, here and here).
Once we have a vision, we should sell it to other states and their electorates. For this we need someone in overall charge – a cabinet position for a substantial (cross-departmental) Europe Minister, who can explain the policy, manage relations within the party and be a point of contact for potential political allies in the EU. On a practical note, this Minister should have access to the Prime Minister’s diary so EU leaders do not get chewed up by the Number 10 machine (i.e. to ensure the PM meets the right people and that if the Europe Minister promises something, the exact opposite does not pop up in a PM speech).
With the right vision, a Cabinet Minister in overall charge, and consistency, the UK could start to build up relationships and challenge the current vision of “ever-closer union”. It will take time to change impressions, but it can work and could be what others in Europe have been waiting for.
Lastly, this Cabinet Minister’s first job should be to oversee the drafting of a substantial speech on where the UK sees itself in the EU post-eurozone crisis and potential fiscal union. In short, David Cameron should emulate Margaret Thatcher in making his own Bruges speech. After all, the EU is in desperate need of new ideas. Enlargement, successive NO votes in EU-related referenda, and, most importantly, the decisive blow to ‘ever-closer union’ landed by the eurozone crisis are changing the way Europe operates. Britain has a huge opportunity if it has the foresight to take it.