John Lichfield: Cameron's European opportunity

The Tory leader has a historic opportunity to wean his party, and Britain, from demonology and present the EU as it really is: muddling, frustrating, but essential
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The Independent Online

Here is a conundrum. Tony Blair promised to be most pro-European prime minister since Edward Heath. He left Britain marginalised and distrusted in the European Union. (As a result of the Gulf War; the attempt to split Europe on Old and New Rumsfeldian lines; the Realpolitik lies about French policy on Iraq.)

David Cameron leads the most viscerally anti-Brussels, large, parliamentary party since Britain joined the EU. He could become the prime minister who reconciles the British people with Europe and gives Britain a consistently positive leadership role in Brussels for the first time.

He could, but that is not to say that he will.

The card game of British and European politics – evènements, mon cher garçon evènements – has dealt Cameron a rather interesting hand. A month ago many people foresaw that a Cameron Tory government would try to do as little as possible in Europe but that – harried by a fiercely Eurosceptic new parliamentary party – he would be pushed into a series of bruising disputes with EU partners.

Cameron now finds himself as leader of a coalition government with the very pro-European Lib Dems. His deputy PM, Nick Clegg, is a former European Commission official and Euro MP. Cameron's first foreign trip as Prime Minister was to Europe, where President Nicolas Sarkozy flattered him and Chancellor Angela Merkel called him "du" and "David" (but not yet "Dave").

Cameron said that Britain would not climb aboard the battered hulk of the euro, as it tries to survive the worst storm in its short history. No surprises there. He went on, however, to say that a strong and successful euro was in Britain's interest. Hooray for that, said many Europeans. This was a welcome change from the traditional British attitude to anything new coming out of Europe in the last 60 years, from the European Coal and Steel Community to the European Champions Cup. "We will not join you for now. In the meantime, we trust, and hope, that you will fail."

One has the impression that Cameron is more comfortable as PM of a Con-Lib Dem coalition than he would have been as head of a Tory majority. It gives him wriggle room. It fits his conciliatory temperament better. This may be especially true on Europe. His modernising, moderating strategy as opposition leader was to ditch most Thatcherist dogma under the cover of being more-Thatcher-than-Thatcher on the European Union. He led the Euro-Tories out of the mainstream, mildly federalist, European People's Party (including Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel) into alliance with a rag-bag of mostly eastern European oddballs.

Now, the Lib Dem alliance gives Cameron a chance to build a pragmatic and co-operative new British approach to Europe, whatever the red-meat Tory Eurosceptics may think. The Conservative election manifesto spoke of repatriation of powers and an ambition to reduce the supra-national EU to a mere "association of states". The Con-Lib coalition agreement managed to be both Europositive and Eurosceptic in tone but had no mention of repatratiating powers. It even suggested that new EU legislation on a common criminal justice policy could be in Britain's interest.

Fate has dealt Mr Cameron another helpful card. As a result of the sovereign debt crisis, European politics is an intriguing ferment. Or, if you prefer, a mess. Germany seems to have lost its Euro-federalist religion but want, at the same time, to change the treaties to give the EU new powers to control national finances. Chancellor Merkel, harried by an increasingly Eurosceptic press and public opinion, has mishandled the sovereign debt crisis. Having declined to take modest measures to help Greece, she finds herself forced to champion a more radical rescue package to save the euro (from which Germany has benefited more than any other member country).

German relations with France have become fractious. President Sarkozy, furious with Chancellor Merkel's lack of leadership, is said to have threatened at one point to pull France out of the euro. He is reliably reported to have compared the "us-first" German politics of 2010 to the Germany of 70 years ago. "They have not changed," he said. Italy under Silvio Berlusconi has little influence. Spain is fighting to save itself. Belgium is falling apart. The new, post-Lisbon Treaty, leadership in Brussels has hit the ground running backwards, partly because it has ineffectual personalities in leading roles. But why are they so ineffectual? When it came to choose, a majority of EU governments preferred its new leading personalities to be weak.

This may sound like a denouncement (yet another) of the absurdities of the EU. There is, admittedly, little for Euro-fanatics, or even Euro-pragmatists, to sing and dance about (even if predictions of the demise of the euro are likely to prove silly). All the same, Cameron has a historic opportunity to wean his party, and Britain, from Eurosceptic demonology and present the EU as it really is: muddled, frustrating, but essential. The federalist religion of the EU has long been dead or marginalised. The surviving ideologues are those Eurosceptics who insist – against all evidence – that Brussels is bent on world domination.

Cameronism, as amended by Cleggism, could find itself surprisingly close to Sarkozyisme and Merkelism in the search for a new form of modest, but effective, Euro-pragmatism. This does not mean sweeping new powers for Brussels. Nor does it mean unwinding the existing common powers and shared sovereignty, without which there could be no single European market or common European action on climate, crime or terrorism. As Ms Merkel found out in her early, half-baked responses to the Greek debt crisis, attempts to ignore the Brussels institutional machinery and to rely on loose inter-government pledges are rapidly ripped apart by the big market players (who simultaneously purport to despise the EU institutions).

There will be plenty of juicy opportunities for Britain vs the Rest quarrels in the next few years: on the UK budget rebates or the future funding of the CAP. But the leadership vacuum in the EU, and the tensions between Berlin and Paris, also give Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg, and even the Eurosceptic William Hague, a great opportunity. No more abstractions. No more quarrels over procedure. No more beggar-my-neighbourishness. Let's just make use of the strength-in-unity of the EU to rescue what remains of European prosperity.

j.lichfield@independent.co.uk

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