Blair failed to get Britain to come to terms with the EU. Could David Cameron do it?by Anand Menon / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
The Conservative party has, over recent weeks, resembled nothing so much as a highly public group therapy session. Prominent figures have lined up to step forward and confess to past wrongs. And David Cameron has promised faithfully to do better, abandoning Tory shibboleths in health and education in his attempt to move the party to the centre ground of British politics.
No such confessionals, however, have occurred over Europe. In fact, quite the contrary. The decision to pull Conservative MEPs out of the European People’s party grouping in the European parliament, thereby isolating them from the mainstream European centre-right, was one avoided even by Iain Duncan Smith. It implies, if anything, a hardening of Conservative criticisms of Brussels.
But Cameron is missing a golden opportunity for both himself and his party. The Tories are busily rebranding themselves as a caring, tolerant party of the centre. Their irascible, occasionally xenophobic, tendencies when it comes to Europe hardly chime with this repositioning. More significantly, a reappraisal of Tory policy towards the EU makes perfect strategic sense. Consider one of the defining moments in the history of British Euroscepticism. When Margaret Thatcher made her infamous speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988, she argued in favour of an EC embracing the states of central and eastern Europe; of building a liberal market; and of EC institutions neither strong nor ambitious enough to act as social democratic regulators.
The EU of 25 states is now largely that which the iron lady demanded in Bruges all those years ago. The single market is a decidedly liberal affair, lacking much of the social regulation that the Delors commission promised. The new commission is itself generally liberal in outlook and, besides, is far weaker and less influential than its predecessors. And the death of the constitutional treaty has spelled the end of the EU’s federal vision. Debate has shifted from the traditional obsession with institutional theology to real, substantive policy issues.
The upshot has been the creation of an enormous market operating under rules with which British companies are extremely comfortable. And prospects for the future are rosier still. Never has there been such a permissive environment for liberalisation—in terms of both the arithmetic of council votes and the preferences of the commission. A Cameron government that made its peace with the new EU would earn significant respect among its partners, providing it with the authority to push this agenda still further.
In fact, Cameron is now the figure in British politics most able to cure the country of one of its most chronic problems—its failure to come to terms with EU membership. Labour, even with a huge majority and popular leader, did not manage it. Perhaps only a Conservative prime minister can bring closure to this particular episode.