After this week's EU summit in Brussels, the Prime Minister had two messages to get across.
The first was the easy one: that he and his Government would never take the UK into the euro. In so saying, David Cameron was doing no more than confirming the blindingly obvious. If ever this had ever been a possibility, under the current or any other government – which it was not – now was hardly the time for any step that would destabilise an already fragile status quo. The second message was only slightly more complicated. This was that Britain, as indeed Mr Cameron had repeatedly promised, had not been inveigled into contributing to the eurozone's rescue for Greece. British taxpayers would not be pauperised in order to save the Greeks from their own profligacy.
The trouble with this message is that, while literally true, it is far from the whole truth and depends to a degree on a technicality. While Britain, as a non-euro state, has no obligation to stump up to keep Greece in the euro and the euro itself afloat, the rescue package has two parts. There is the EU contribution, from which Britain has remained aloof, and the IMF element, for which the UK, as a member, will help to pay. So Britain has helped to fund the rescue of Greece, just not through EU mechanisms – which is a distinction successive British governments have seen fit to make to avoid being branded "pushovers" by the anti-Europe lobby back home.
Presentation, it might be said, is everything. But the result is a deception of the British public, which is thus enabled to live in a world of semi-detachment from Europe which bears scant relation to the reality. By whatever means the Government deems will be tolerated by the voters, Britain is contributing to the bailout of the Greek economy. And whichever party is in power, whether it is Europhile, Eurosceptic, or indifferent, has little choice but to do that, because the eurozone accounts for the bulk of Britain's trade, and doubts about the solidity of the euro and the eurozone fuel uncertainty here. Real semi-detachment is not an option; our economies are now too closely bound to be unravelled, and so are our fortunes.
Mr Cameron, of course, has as much difficulty as any recent prime minister in admitting this publicly, and probably more, given the strong streak of Euroscepticism that runs through his party. But both he and the Chancellor, George Osborne, are on record as warning that the collapse of the euro would not be in Britain's interests. And if actions are observed, rather than words tailored to the home audience, this Conservative-led coalition is at least as EU-minded as its Labour predecessors. The combination of a genuine crisis – first Ireland, then Portugal, now Greece – and a predisposition to favour realpolitik has produced an approach that is far more co-operative than it is obstructive. It is something other EU leaders are complicit in hushing up, lest the reality prove too hard for British Eurosceptics to bear.
It is regrettable that such sleight of hand, and word, is necessary. But the latest result is agreement on a second, highly conditional, bailout for Greece whose cost the Greek parliament and people must now weigh. If it is accepted – as must be hoped but cannot be taken for granted – Britain should not be ashamed to have played its part.Reuse content