They gave David Cameron bacon and eggs in Brussels yesterday. But will the Prime Minister return the favour by offering the British public a continental breakfast? Can we expect Mr Cameron to be a leader who makes the case for Europe in Britain, rather than one who tries to define himself through battles with Brussels? In short can we expect a positive and constructive relationship with our European partners under this Government?
Despite Mr Cameron's Eurosceptic background and his provocative decision to pull the Tories out of the mainstream European People's Party while in opposition, the initial signs have been surprisingly positive. Mr Cameron has visited Paris and Berlin before making the British prime minister's traditional pilgrimage to Washington; a small gesture perhaps, but not an insignificant one. And in advance of yesterday's summit he promised a "very positive, a very engaged, a very active role in the European Union". There was no mention of "repatriating" powers or securing opt-outs from existing EU treaties.
The business of yesterday's summit itself went relatively smoothly. Mr Cameron had no real trouble signing the agreement on better European co-ordination on bank regulation and reducing budget deficits. This agenda actually suits Mr Cameron nicely. A pan-European levy on banks will help lessen domestic resistance to his own planned levy. And the Prime Minister clearly feels that European fiscal austerity helps vindicate his own hawkish stance on the UK deficit. The one point of potential conflict yesterday – the idea of Britain being required to submit its budget to Brussels in advance for scrutiny – was easily defused because Berlin and Paris were divided on the subject.
Of course, fortune has smiled on Mr Cameron. There are no new contentious EU treaties in the pipeline and this has been a period of distraction for France and Germany – the traditional motors of EU convergence – with the ongoing crisis in the eurozone. And despite the conspiracy theories circulating in British Eurosceptic circles, there is no great desire in European capitals for deeper political integration; if anything the forces are pulling in the opposite direction.
The pro-European influence of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in the coalition has helped to blunt Mr Cameron's euroscepticism. Yet this is likely to be one progressive attitude from the Government that cannot be entirely blamed on the Prime Minister's coalition partners. Mr Cameron made a strong speech in the election campaign in which he made it clear that he did not want any bust-ups with Europe. And indeed why would he? The Prime Minister has witnessed two previous Tory administrations suffer near nervous breakdowns on the issue of Europe. And his administration has enough problems to deal with without picking fights abroad, much as the right wing of his party would like him to.
There will almost certainly be friction down the line. The Common Agricultural Policy and the EU budget are traditional conflict points. But the ongoing economic and financial emergency across the eurozone and the wider Continent puts these old battles rather in the shade. Even the most dogmatic Eurosceptic can grasp that another slump on the Continent – or a fresh banking crisis – would be terrible news for Britain's recovery. The threat of economic meltdown has a wonderful tendency to concentrate the mind.
Mr Cameron seized an opportunity to neutralise his own party's right wing when the electorate delivered an indecisive election result in May. The fissile economic situation in Europe has delivered another. Mr Cameron needs to be similarly decisive in taking it.Reuse content