Adrian Hamilton: As Europe sees it, UK barracking is just irresponsible

World View: Here is a chance for the prime minister to step in, help find a solution, and then demand a return

Adrian Hamilton
Thursday 27 October 2011 00:00
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The most emphatic proponents of a UK referendum on EU membership at the moment are not the anti-European Tories but our fellow members on the Continent. You can't go across the Channel at present without being asked, "Are you in or are you out? For heaven's sake, make up your mind."

If only we could. That's been the story ever since we joined. But what is unexpected is that the antagonism should have reared its head just when David Cameron and his Foreign Secretary, William Hague, seemed to be doing rather well in Europe.

After a difficult start following Cameron's ill-thought-out gesture of removing Tory MPs from the conservative grouping in the European Parliament, an action which aroused the particular ire of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Cameron has proved to be a surprisingly co-operative participant in EU meetings.

He was supportive of the eurozone in the first discussions on the Greek debt crisis at the beginning of this year. He allied Britain with France over Libyan intervention and didn't try to upstage President Sarkozy when it proved successful. Tony Blair would have been a lot less modest.

All that has now changed. He lectured eurozone leaders on the need to get their act together, and then said that Britain had no intention of helping out through the IMF or any other institution. Finally – the move which caused Nicolas Sarkozy to tell to him shut up in the meeting last Sunday – he insisted on attending the second emergency summit of leaders in Brussels yesterday.

On that Cameron is actually right. This is a crisis that affects not just the eurozone but the whole of the EU, its growth and, by association, the sovereign debt and bank liquidity of all countries in the union. The UK should have a seat at the table.

He is also right in telling his own backbench MPs that this is no time to talk of leaving the EU. It's not only that it's unhelpful politically to the Government in its European relations, it's also that the crisis is bound to have far-reaching effects on the future structure of the union and its institutions. Then will be the time to get into the argument, to protect our interests, but more to the point to try and influence the course of the debate.

It's unfair to categorise Britain, as our Continental critics tend to, as being peculiarly ambivalent about the EU at present. The debates over the Lisbon Treaty and now the travails of the euro have caused voters right across Europe to doubt the efficacy of Brussels and the course of cohesion. A retreat to parochialism is a common feature of most Western publics, including the US, at this time.

If Monday's debate in the Commons showed anything new in Britain's attitude to Europe it was the extent to which the young intake of Tory MPs in the last election is anti-European. With most of them from privileged backgrounds, and privileged professions, they view economic crises as something outside themselves, brought in from the exterior, rather than parts of a globalised problem in which we have a role.

But we do have a role and that is the weakness of our position in the emergency summits of the week. Under pressure from his own party and the Treasury, Cameron has set his face absolutely against IMF involvement in a rescue which would commit UK funds as a member.

Yet a widening of support may be the only way out of the present impasse. British refusal to participate, understandable politically though it is, is no different than the reluctance of German voters to let their country fork out for a rescue in a way that the British are demanding they do. Everyone wants someone else to carry the burden on this one. And it's just too big for that.

If the British really wanted to reshape Europe, and renegotiate their terms of membership, then their opportunity is to step in now, take a constructive part in finding a solution and then demand a return. Barracking from the sidelines is not just useless. It's irresponsible.

Nato still has a role in Libya

The first act of the newly installed Libyan government has been to ask Nato to stay on until the end of the year and not, as some of the organisation's members would wish, to wrap up operations this month.

Logically, Nato should cease the mission. It was brought in by the UN to protect civilians in the civil war that developed. Pushed by President Sarkozy and David Cameron, it changed its role to act as the air arm of the insurgents in their fight to unseat Colonel Gaddafi. Now that the rebels have won, its mission is at an end.

And yet one would rather Nato stayed on to help with security as an alliance than that the field was left open to individual countries. There are plenty willing, and not just France. Qatar has now revealed that it has "hundreds of troops" on the ground.

The reconstruction of Libya is going to be extremely difficult. There is a lot to be said for keeping it internationalised through the UN rather than leaving it to its own devices and the predatory eyes of others.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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