Did Downing Street secrecy sink EU deal?


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.

Mark Ubran reports on Cameron's EU deal 'gamble'

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    But does the BBC think secrecy can save the Euro?

    Today, the main BBC News on tv has not been giving the usual exchange rate reports.

    (Just so you know, since Friday the Euro has sharply fallen 0.69 cents against the pound, to it's lowest level since March).

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    The BBC should be brave enough to publish the real eurozone debt pile figures that are being used by HMG and to explain why the BoE are spending increasing amounts of their time preparing emergency planning protocols. Germany is trapped between printing euros (effectively accepting a devaluation with all their hard work gone up in smoke) or leaving the eurozone. It cannot be cut any other way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    The markets have voted: euro has lost 1.5% against the pound in 48 hours. Yields on PIGS denominated bonds have climbed to near unsustainable levels. The reality is very simple. Germany must agree to start printing euros or she must leave the eurozone. The politics was nothing more than a sideshow. David Cameron acted politically knowing there is a going to be a shock, one way or the other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    French MEP Joseph Daul wanted to punish the UK? The greatest punishment the man could inflict is a day longer in the EU. The EURO is a flawed currency managed by people with no answers to the problems they created and dont seem to care. The British people are very much poorer as a result of the Euro and say to Europe get you act together we are unimpressed with your incompetence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    If the BBC didn't receive money from the EU then I couldn't accuse them of bias!


Comments 5 of 127



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