In his bid to anchor modern Conservatism firmly in the middle ground, the Prime Minister carefully side-stepped any detailed talk of Europe in his party conference speech this week. Given the steady drumbeat of Euroscepticism from his government, however, he hardly needed to.
Under political pressure to woo back disappointed right-wingers flirting with the UK Independence Party, David Cameron threw out a meaty bone earlier in the week, describing a referendum – in his warmest words yet – as the "cleanest, neatest and simplest way" to obtain consent for a change in the relationship between Britain and the EU.
Meanwhile, the stack of issues upon which the Prime Minister hopes to loosen our links with Europe is growing almost daily. Not only is his Government conducting a "competency review" to look for powers to "repatriate" to Westminster (with no equivalent consideration of areas where closer integration might be a benefit). As an opt-out on 130-plus EU law and order measures nears expiry, there is also talk of pulling Britain out of everything from shared crime databases to the European Arrest Warrant.
Then there is the next EU budget – to be finalised in December – upon which topic Mr Cameron is already making public threats and referring bullishly to his veto of treaty negotiations last December. Finally, as the Tory faithful massed in Birmingham last weekend, their leader raised the possibility of a curb on EU migration. An easy sop to his anti-immigration lobby, perhaps; but also a suggestion that undermines the concept of the single market at the very heart of the union.
There is, of course, a case to be made against Mr Cameron's position on each question individually. But it is the cumulative effect that is more injurious still. The unavoidable sense that the UK has one foot out of Europe's door would be concerning in any circumstances. With the EU facing challenges that will reshape its fundamental character, it is – for all the beguiling talk of ensuring the best deal for Britain – an impression that is materially weakening our ability to influence developments that will affect us profoundly whether we like it or not.
The most immediate cause for concern is the proposed eurozone banking union. Such a plan (Mr Cameron agrees) is central to resolving the euro crisis. Although, as a non-euro country, Britain will not be a member, it is of vital importance that the implications for the City of London are considered as the scheme is framed. At the very time, though, that British officials are asking their EU counterparts to take account of our priorities, their government is hinting that we might not be sticking around. In such circumstances, it is difficult to see why the UK's requests might be taken seriously or much effort made to accommodate them. And if the problem is tricky as regards banking union, it will be multiplied many times over for longer-term questions of fiscal and political union.
To his credit, Mr Cameron says complete withdrawal from Europe is not his goal; he simply wants a re-think of our position. But talk of a referendum can only raise the spectre of withdrawal, an impression sadly bolstered by his tactical short-sightedness. With such changes afoot, Britain needs friends in the EU more than ever. Instead, our Prime Minister's wake is strewn with influence lost, negotiating capital wasted, and carefully calibrated diplomatic relationships sold down the river for a ripple of applause back home. Mr Cameron strove to play the statesman at his party conference. To an extent, he succeeded. But only by not mentioning Europe.
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