Britain’s place in Europe is precisely the same after the feverish dramas of recent days as it was before. Indeed, the dramas are part of an established pattern. At key moments the UK steps aside from - or takes a contrary view to - the other big players. We are not part of the euro. We took a different view to Germany and France on the war in Iraq. We are the only country to join the EU and then hold a referendum two years later to decide whether we wanted to leave. We are the only country contemplating another such referendum now.
Such seemingly seismic events had happened or were happening before the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the EU. The sequence of events leading up to Juncker’s elevation was one of those that was wholly unavoidable but seems far more significant than it is. David Cameron had no choice but to seek a veto given the state of his party and his own views on Juncker, views shared by the other party leaders. I have read many columnists argue that they agree with Cameron but that he went about vetoing Juncker in the wrong way.
There was no route available to Cameron that would have brought a different outcome. In other circumstances Angela Merkel might have flexed her muscles, but in this case she had no muscles to flex. She was also trapped by domestic constraints and would still have been if Cameron had sought to veto Juncker more discreetly - if indeed there was a discreet route to vetoing a presidential appointment, which I doubt. The events of the past few days seem tumultuous but change nothing. Cameron was doomed to try, and doomed to fail in his mission. Merkel and others were doomed to give Juncker the go ahead. Quite often seemingly powerful leaders have no power at all.
Take a step back from the frenzy and Britain’s broader position is the same. The three main party leaders want the country to remain part of the EU but seek reforms, some specific and others vaguely defined. Reform should not be impossible given that other countries, not least Germany, also want change. More widely the UK’s position is pretty clear.
As Cameron has said many times, there needs to be more integration for those countries in the euro. Economic union without a greater degree of political union is unsustainable. The UK is not part of the euro and therefore will not be part of this dynamic. Yet the UK remains a powerful player because of the size of its economy and it often gets its way in internal EU negotiations. Indeed the surprise is not how often the UK is humiliated in Europe, but the degree to which the other EU members try to keep us on board.
The real issue for Cameron and indeed the UK is not Juncker or the EU’s capacity for reform, but the attitude of the Conservative party. If Cameron were to win the election next year he would be in for at least two years of hell over Europe. From Day One of the next Conservative government Tory MPs would take to the airwaves and make their impossible demands. I was a BBC political correspondent during the Maastricht debates in the 1990s and recall Tory MPs turning up to the BBC’s Westminster studios uninvited on a regular basis to offer their latest insurrectionary thoughts. They would be queuing up to do so once more.
That is an issue for the Conservative party to resolve. The worry for the country as a whole is that Europe does not merit becoming yet again the overwhelming issue of our times. The next government faces far bigger challenges - from meeting the costly and growing demands of elderly care to building houses in a country that has been incapable of doing so since the 1970s. Yet if Cameron and his party are returned Europe will dominate. Other policy areas will hardly get a look-in.
For all that’s destabilising, if there is a referendum in 2017 the UK will vote to stay in the EU. The dangers of leaving would overwhelm hypothetical arguments about the benefits. However the referendum and the outcome would change nothing. Within a few years of the 1975 referendum Labour was committed to pulling out of Europe without further consultation. Calls to leave would surface quickly again this time. In the UK there will always be such calls.
If Labour wins next year the whole issue of Europe would be less nerve-shredding, but the UK would remain on the margins, as it often was with Tony Blair, and as it inevitably is in relation to the euro. For all the noise, nothing changes and nothing will change. For years to come, Britain will remain the EU’s demented outsider.
Cruddas’ grumbles just show his inexperience
The private expressions of frustration from the head of Labour’s policy review, Jon Cruddas, and the response of Ed Balls tell us much about the nature of power.
Cruddas was recorded at a private meeting suggesting that a cautious leadership was blocking radical ideas. He gave the example of how the recent excellent IPPR report proposing innovative reforms was reduced to a singe headline about benefit cuts. When asked about Cruddas’s comments, Balls expressed sympathy over the way that huge amounts of policy work is reduced to a single headline, but added that this is what happens all the time.
For Cruddas it is a new experience operating at the nexus where ideas, policy, electoral expediency and the constraints of government collide. In contrast, Balls has been exposed to the raging heat at the peak of politics for his entire career, working on the art of the possible in relation to economic policy since his mid-20s, which is why he remains the key figure in the shadow cabinet.
Balls’s speech to business leaders yesterday was typically expedient and ambitious. In its focus on EU reform, on an active industrial policy, on the need for a skilled workforce to meet the demands of the global economy, and in securing positive pro-business headlines, Balls showed an acute awareness of what can be usefully said in opposition and achieved in power.
Politics at the top is tough, but ultimately more rewarding than debating ideas in the abstract.