Europe still troubles the Tories
|Thursday, 8. October 2009 2 comment(s)||
If the UK has a famously difficult relationship with Europe, for the Tories – the British Conservative Party – it is even more tortured. It is easy to think of the Tories as only Eurosceptics; Mrs Thatcher’s handbag metaphorically wielded as a weapon to get back “her” rebate; but this is only half the story. Winston Churchill was a big fan of European integration although he firmly thought it was something for the Europeans: meaning everyone on the other side of the English Channel/La Manche. For Churchill, Britain’s place was still at the head of the Empire but times changed and it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, who took the UK into the then EEC in 1973 (a subsequent referendum on continuing membership was called and won by Labour's Harold Wilson in 1975). And it was Margaret Thatcher – demonised by many Europhiles both inside and outside of the UK – who actually signed up Britain to arguably the most important steps toward integration in EU: the Single European Act of 1986. The Maastricht treaty of 1992 was also signed by a Conservative prime minister, this time John Major. The Tories have also provided a number of important and well regarded commissioners to the European Commission over the years such as Leon Brittan and Chris Patten. Internally some of the ‘big beasts’ of the party, such as Ken Clarke, remain strong supporters of Britain’s European vocation to this day.
Nevertheless anti-EU sentiment remains what the party is famous for. This division between the adamant Eurosceptics, often sniping from the relative safety of the back benches, and the party leadership, who had to deal with the mundane reality of the importance of Europe to the UK’s economy and global position, broke the last Conservative government of John Major. He infamously was caught on mike describing his Eurosceptic critics as “the bastards”. This division has still not been resolved and as next year’s general election approaches, it is coming to the surface again causing problems for David Cameron, the Tories’ youthful leader.
This week’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester was never meant to be about Europe, but the unfortunate coincidental timing with the Irish voting ‘Yes’ to the Lisbon Treaty has brought it to the fore again. Cameron has stuck to his claim that Lisbon is a bad treaty taking the EU in the wrong direction (towards a federal state and away from an organisation of nation-states). But he has failed to come up with a good answer to what the Tories would do instead. He claimed that the Tories would not interfere in the domestic politics of other EU member states with regard to their ratification processes, but then it was revealed he had sent a hand written note to President Klaus of the Czech Republic. Conservative HQ will not say what this letter contained, but an educated guess can be had from Klaus’ statement that “the people of Britain should have done something much earlier” and that he would not be able to delay the treaty any further. Cameron had said the UK would have a referendum on Lisbon if the treaty was not ratified by the time the Tories come to power, but was unwilling to say if they would still call one if it was already in place. This has led to the interesting spectacle of the Conservatives most recent eurosceptic attack-dog, the eloquent and smart young MEP, Dan Hannan, getting stick from those further to his right for ‘selling out’ by defending his party leader’s non-position.
What this kerfuffle suggests is that Cameron does not see Britain’s relations with the EU as a policy priority if the Conservatives come to power next year. It is more of a holding pattern: some red meat thrown to the Eurosceptic wing of the party, but only enough to stop the EU becoming a dominant area of debate within the party again, or at least not until after next year’s general election.
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