Fear of Tory win spooks Europe

The EU has barely figured in the campaign, but it is occupying minds elsewhere

John Lichfield
Friday 16 April 2010 00:00
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A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Toryism. From the celebrated opening words of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, it may seem a dizzy leap to the Conservative Party Manifesto 2010. All the same, European capitals are surveying the British election campaign with increasing anxiety. There is no recent precedent for a party so virulently Eurosceptic, or europhobic, as David Cameron's "New Tories" taking office in a large EU member state.

The founding text of Marxism is certainly more radical than the eight paragraphs out of 120 pages that represent the founding wisdom of "Daveism" on Europe. According to the Tory manifesto, the European Union should become a loose "association" of states (reopening an argument that Britain lost more than 50 years ago). In the meantime, there should be more opt-outs and exceptions for Britain, including on criminal justice and the European charter of fundamental rights.

There will be a law to ensure a referendum on any future transfer of powers to the EU. A Tory Britain will never join the euro. On the surface, there is nothing especially revolutionary in all of that. No Ukip-like threat to leave the EU; no attempt to repeal the Lisbon reform treaty. All the same, continental governments are worried. According to a survey by the ConservativeHome website, more than 40 per cent of Tory candidates favour outright withdrawal or a "fundamental renegotiation" of EU membership.

Alain Richard, a Socialist former French defence minister and close watcher of British and European politics, said: "For many months there has been a tendency to say 'Oh, Cameron is British. He is pragmatic. There will be no real problem. Anyway, he may never be elected'. That mood is now changing, in Paris and in Berlin and elsewhere. Judging from the conversations I have had, there is growing realisation that a Cameron government could be a serious threat to the stability of the European Union, with potentially dangerous consequences for all of us at a time of recession. The mood now, even for centre-right governments like in Paris and Berlin, is 'Let's hope Cameron is not elected'."

Other voices in Brussels and Berlin suggest that an aggressively, or passively, Eurosceptic Tory government would mostly damage Britain's own interests – not those of the EU. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is hardly a euro-visionary, as the Greek government has discovered to its cost. However, she remains icily furious at Mr Cameron's decision last year to abandon the mainstream, vaguely federalist, centre-right European movement, the European People's Party, in favour of a rag-bag of small Eastern European nationalist parties. "Under Cameron the UK would be in danger of becoming an irrelevance in Europe," said one source in Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Party this week.

The same message – "You need us more than we need you" – was publicly communicated to Mr Cameron on Monday by the secretary general of the jilted EPP. "[The Tories] have no influence and they have nothing to say within the EU institutions right now," said Antonio Lopez-Isturiz, who is also a Spanish Euro MP. "Being left out of the main political institutions in the EU is a mistake... I believe that David Cameron will make the pragmatic choice after the elections to come back [into the EPP. Otherwise] the British voice [in Europe] will be [Baroness] Catherine Ashton. Is that what they want?"

Nicole Ameline, a centre-right French deputy and co-president of the Anglo-French parliamentary friendship association, is convinced that a Cameron government would buckle down to European realities. "I have confidence in British pragmatism," she said (using the P-word again). "I dare to hope that, once in power, a Conservative government would recognise the seriousness of the present economic crisis and would accept the need for creative and cooperative responses at European level."

There has been a relative Tory reluctance to discuss Europe during the campaign (only eight paragraphs in the manifesto, after all). A senior European Commission official in Brussels predicts – 70 years after 1939-1940 – a kind of "phoney war" if the Conservatives are elected on 6 May. "My guess is that not much will happen initially with the Tories. They will keep a low profile on Europe. I think Merkel and [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy will try to embrace them in the large centre-right family [the EPP] again. But then we'll have to see."

Depending on your viewpoint, this could be the best of times or the worst of times for a Conservative-led Britain to wrestle with its partners in the European Union. Far from the relentless, federalist conspiracy of Ukip nightmares, the EU is drifting and leaderless. The ratification of the Lisbon reform treaty has not produced the stronger leadership, or "increased visibility", or sense of popular purpose, promised during eight years of negotiations. To some voices in France, for instance, the real threats to EU unity in 2010 are not David Cameron and Britain but Angela Merkel and a newly self-confident, and even selfish, Germany.

The EU, enlarged and semi-reformed, has already moved much closer to what moderate Tories say they want: a community of states founded on a single, free market and a desire to defend Europe-wide common interests on issues like the environment. Talk of moving to an "association" of states – viz the Tory Manifesto – is unhelpful, say mainstream, continental politicians. Britain lost that argument in the 1950s.

The EU is founded on the twin principles of shared sovereignty and common legislation – where desirable. Without them, the single European market, which Tories profess to support, could never have existed and would not survive. But enlargement to 27 states, with more to come, and the decline of the federalist religion in Germany and the Netherlands have changed many things. A subtle Conservative government would have an opportunity to deflect a rudderless EU towards some of Britain's long-stated goals: more free trade in services; even less spending on agriculture; further enlargement.

"The problem is that this is not an argument you can easily make with the modern Conservatives," said one senior member of President Sarkozy's centre-right party. "We find that we can no longer speak the same language as them on Europe... Cameron seems to me to have made a devil's pact with his backbenchers and the British press. He can abandon the whole of Thatcherism so long as he is more Thatcher than Thatcher on Europe."

Alain Richard, French defence minister from 1997 to 2002, says that there is no reason why a Cameron government could not obtain part of its European shopping list: a couple of opt-outs and a watered-down draft law on the regulation of hedge funds. "But would that be enough for the Conservative backbenchers and the Eurosceptic press?" he said. The anti-European virus has become so powerful in Conservative Britain, he fears, that traditional British "pragmatism" no longer applies. "With the EU already stumbling, a confrontation between London and the rest could put the whole of the European project in danger," he added.

Senateur Jean-Léonce Dupont, the centrist president of the Anglo-French group in the French senate, says that a confrontational approach by a Cameron government might have perverse consequences. "Europe is going through an uncertain phase," he said. "But attack from a British government might drive the other EU governments closer together and especially the French and the Germans." How about that for the law of unintended consequences? Tory euro-scepticism jolting Europe back on to the rails.

All in all, a Cameron government would find itself confronted by the conundrum which has tormented British governments for 60 years. Left to ourselves, we would never have invented a sovereignty-sharing, law-making European Union. Once the EU exists, the game changes. Can Britain afford to flounce away from the whole project?

Additional reporting by Vanessa Mock and Tony Paterson

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