Did Downing Street secrecy sink EU deal?

  • 12 December 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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We sometimes get told that the British Diplomatic Service is a Rolls Royce operation - a finely tuned machine able to charm foreign governments under the most adverse circumstances.

So how should we interpret the result of the summit in Brussels last Friday, a diplomatic debacle, in which the UK ended up heaped with opprobrium as the lone country that stood in the way of European harmony?

The answer, it seems, is that this is one of those episodes where the tendency to centralise power - keeping it in Downing Street - has rebounded to the cost of almost everyone in the wider government.

The Foreign Office, with its extensive mission in Brussels, staffed by dozens of people schooled in the European Union's arcane ways, ought to have been able to rally support for the British cause, but it appears they were cut out of the picture.

Britain's "financial protocol", its list of proposals designed to protect its national interest - ie the City - was only passed to the European Commission on Wednesday, diplomats have told me.

It was circulated to other EU member states some time late on Thursday, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron headed for his ill-fated pre-dinner meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It was only after some time after 0200 (0100GMT) on Friday, when nobody was in the mood for a raft of British special pleading, that it finally came to the table.

How had this happened, when national representatives in Brussels often circulate their proposals 10-14 days before a summit? The answer appears to be that Downing Street did not wish to share its memo earlier for tactical reasons.

Some suggest the tactics in this case were a desire on the part of Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to keep Foreign Secretary William Hague out of the picture.

Perhaps Mr Clegg believed that having the more Euro-sceptic foreign secretary involved would have skewed the debate. Perhaps it was nothing more complicated that Downing Street officials' belief that circulating the proposals in advance would lead other European countries to table demands of their own or organise their resistance to Number 10's agenda.

When the other delegations became aware of Britain's proposal, many were concerned that in trying to remove from the EU's majority voting procedures certain areas of financial regulation, Mr Cameron was actually trying to turn the clock back. Regulation of the single market has been subject to the process called Qualified Majority Voting since 1986.

Had the changes Britain was proposing been properly explained it is possible there might have been more support. It might be that only one or two countries could have been persuaded to offer such help (for example Ireland, which is also concerned about proposed EU financial regulations) but instead Britain was left completely exposed in a club of one.

Those in Whitehall who hope to resume normal business with the EU as soon as possible are keen to paint the summit as a tactical blunder.

But perhaps in highlighting the difficult business of managing Euro-sceptic opinion on one hand and Liberal Democrat views on the other, it has shown the difficulties that Downing Street has in leading formulating an effective policy on Europe.