Cameron's problems with Europe

  • 19 November 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
  • comments

Swing Mrs Thatcher's handbag but avoid isolation. Threaten to use the veto but do not waste your energy on negotiations that will not deliver.

That is a summary of the occasionally bewildering advice being given to the prime minister at the beginning of his big week in Europe.

Bewildering because some people appear to be arguing for two apparently contradictory positions. A big week because on Thursday David Cameron heads to Brussels for negotiations on the next seven-year budget for the EU.

So what is going on? The answer is politics is what's going on. The man who won his party's leadership telling the Tories to stop obsessing about Europe now has no choice but to do exactly that thanks to ....

Problem 1 - The Rest of Europe

The UK does not have any support for a cut in the EU budget. The government has or, at least did have, allies for its call for a real-terms freeze but most other governments have more pressing concerns. The Germans have their eyes on the future of the euro and a potential massive bill their taxpayers will have to pay if it collapses.

The Dutch are more concerned about protecting their rebate, which is about to run out. The French have a new government which is anti-austerity and, like all its predecessors, wants, above all, to protect French farming.

"Just say No," say Eurosceptics. Swing that handbag, says Boris. Look at the boost in poll ratings you got when you stood alone last December, they say.

There's just one problem with that advice. The other 26 EU countries have shown a willingness to go ahead without the UK. According to the Financial Times, some are contemplating agreeing annual budgets without the UK's support which would actually cost British taxpayers more.

Problem 2 - The Rest of the Conservative party

The Tories used to be split between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics. They are now split between Eurosceptics and those who are prepared to leave the EU... oh, and Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine.

Today David Davis adds his voice to those arguing that the only way for Britain to forge a new relationship is a threat to leave based on an in/out referendum.

Last week's elections mean that even those Tory MPs who don't obsess about the EU feel the hot breath of UKIP on their necks.

With the PM promising a defining speech on Britain's relationship with the EU before the end of the year, they are exerting maximum pressure.

Problem 3 - Labour

Ed Miliband is determined to portray David Cameron as the new John Major - weak at home and weak abroad. He will tell the CBI there is a danger that Britain could sleepwalk out of the EU.

He will, at the same time, argue for reform of the EU or what some Tory papers have misunderstood as Euroscepticism. They are encouraged by his willingness to work with Eurosceptics to defeat the government.

In truth, Labour has yet to form its approach to Europe. What it's doing is telling the country that the PM is too weak to lead on Europe while working with his enemies to weaken him. That's what opposition parties do.

David Cameron told the CBI that he was not embarrassed about saying No, which suggests he's more worried about problems 2 and 3 than 1.