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Europe, Bloody Europe

David Cameron’s EU problem.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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It’s always bloody Europe. It was Europe (specifically, Tory splits over Britain’s relationship with the EU) that finally did in Mrs. Thatcher, and it did in poor John Major too. Now it is beginning to look like David Cameron might eventually go the same way, felled by the issue he has tried to dodge since becoming party leader in 2005. To borrow his phrase from the following year, “banging on” about Brussels was over. Saving the planet was in.

Europe Isn't Working

The United Kingdom Independence party has not faded away but grown.

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But the elephant was still in the room, increasingly intrusive, increasingly destructive, and increasingly unwanted. Britons have never truly warmed to the EU, but a 2009 poll showing that more than half of them wanted out was just one more sign that resigned exasperation was at last giving way to something more determined. With the economic crisis drawing attention away from the Conservatives’ divisive past and onto the ruling Labour party’s dismal present, some carefully calibrated Brussels bashing would have been a smart way for Cameron both to score points against a notoriously europhile government and, no less important, to calm a restive (and euroskeptic) Conservative base dismayed by their leader’s often clumsy attempts to reboot the party’s image. It was an opportunity Cameron largely ignored, preferring to stay in his comfort zone and sing the old tunes that had worked so well. Carbon menace!

Many voters weren’t impressed. In the 2009 European Parliament elections, the euroskeptic—and distinctly maverick—UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence party) beat Labour into second place behind the Tories, grabbing 16.5 percent of the vote, up a sliver from the already remarkable 16.1 percent scooped up in 2004. It was a humiliation for Labour but a warning for the Conservatives. Less than 12 months before a crucial general election, the Tories who had flocked to UKIP’s side had not come home. A commitment from Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU’s pending Lisbon Treaty—if he was elected before it was in force—reassured few. Rightly so: The treaty came into effect ahead of the election. The Conservatives dropped their referendum.

It may be a coincidence that it was from roughly this point that the Tories struggled to retain a clear lead at the polls. What cannot be denied is that UKIP won enough votes in enough constituencies to deprive the Conservatives of an absolute majority in the 2010 general election. Rather than shoot for a minority government (the bolder, better course), Cameron opted for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the most europhile of all Britain’s major parties. The irony was obvious. The self-inflicted wound has taken a little longer to become visible.

With the keys to 10 Downing Street so close, Cameron’s choice can perhaps be forgiven. The same cannot be said of his reluctance to take a more aggressively euroskeptic tack in the years that have followed. The constraints of coalition have something to do with it, naturally, as do memories of earlier Tory disaster. Nevertheless, with the woes of the euro—a dangerous experiment lauded by many in the Labour party and by the Liberal Democrats—both unnerving the electorate and vindicating those squabbling Conservatives, it ought to be a time to make hay. But that’s not what Cameron has done.

And the chances thrown away may not just be domestic. As things stand, the currency union’s nervous breakdown offers the only remotely realistic prospect of a successful renegotiation of the U.K.’s position in the EU along lines that most Britons, including (he claims) Cameron, really want—to remain in the club, but less so. That’s because any credible long-term fix for the eurozone is likely to involve amendments to the EU’s governing treaty. That would need the approval of all member states including the U.K. That in turn might give Cameron the leverage he would need to secure all the other member states’ agreement to the treaty changes that would be required to accommodate the U.K.’s EU lite.

It’s not going to happen. Holding the global financial system ransom (and that’s how it would be portrayed) is a gamble too far, particularly for the prime minister of the country that hosts that hub of international finance, the City of London, and even more so when that same prime minister is unwilling to risk a breach with his Liberal Democrat partners.

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