By Brendan Donnelly
The new Conservative policy on the Lisbon treaty and the European Union more generally, announced last week by David Cameron, is a distinctly ambiguous one. This may reflect conscious political calculation on his part. It may on the other hand be an inevitable consequence of the incoherence of the present Conservative philosophical approach towards the Union. The logical conclusion of this approach would be for Britain to leave the European Union.
Until now, however, Mr Cameron has fought shy of drawing this conclusion. It will be a central question of British politics over the next five years whether to what extent as Prime Minister he will be willing and able to manage this tension between the Conservative Party’s radical Euroscepticism and its grudging public policy of remaining within the European Union.
The positive aspects of Mr Cameron’s policy are easy to enumerate. His abandonment of any plans for a referendum on the now ratified Lisbon treaty, and indeed of any European referendum in his first period in office, is wholly welcome, The Conservative leader knows that a referendum on the Lisbon treaty would be ineffectual, time-consuming and electorally dangerous, reinforcing the image of the Conservative Party as obsessed with European policy to the exclusion of all other issues.
Equally, he knows that any other European referendum half way through his Premiership could easily spin out of control, with an unpredictable result and unpredictable consequences for the re-election of his government. The Belgian government, which holds the Union’s Presidency in the second half of 2010, will be particularly relieved that Mr Cameron has insisted that he does not want a “bust-up” with the European Union in the first six months of his government. The apparently modest renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s relations with the European Union which Mr Cameron says he now seeks is a programme for the whole period of his Premiership. He does not expect it to be achieved in the first months or even years of his period in office.
These first months, perhaps years of an incoming Conservative government may well in any case, according to Mr Cameron, be largely devoted to remedying the catastrophic economic and social consequences of the outgoing Labour government’s mismanagement of Britain’s affairs.
There is obvious ground for hope in all this. Mr Cameron has not sought to plunge his party further into the dangerous morass of irrational anti-Europeanism. He has contrived for himself the possibility of two years of relative tranquillity on the European issue, in which time he can reasonably argue to the zealots in his party that he is reconstructing the British economy at home and working quietly with his colleagues in the European Union to bring about the changes which he says he wants to render more tolerable the burdens which membership of the Union imposes on the United Kingdom.
If he obtains a substantial majority in the next General Election, Mr Cameron’s prestige as the saviour of the modern Conservative Party may well allow him the prestige to continue postponing for a number of years any damaging confrontation within the Conservative Party on the European issue. Heroic optimists, perhaps including Ken Clarke, may even conclude that when, towards the end of the Conservative government likely to be elected in May 2010, Mr Cameron is forced again to review his European policies, the experience of the Conservative Party in government, notably through having been forced to work within the collaborative structures of the European Union, will soften the asperities of the renewed European debate within the Conservative Party. It is undoubtedly true that over the past twelve years the absence of the Conservative Party from governmental decision- making has served to radicalise its hostility towards the European Union and all its works.
But if there are arguably grounds for cautious optimism about Conservative European policy in the short term, Mr Cameron’s speech last week contained at least as many reasons for deep concern in the longer term. Nobody who heard his speech setting out the new policy can doubt that the Conservative leader harbours both distaste for and distrust of the European Union. He entirely shares the general view of his party that the Union is an ever-encroaching threat to British sovereignty and independence, a threat which any Conservative government will see as one of its main tasks to confront, Significantly, Mr Cameron never speaks of “sovereignty-sharing” in the European Union. He speaks exclusively of “ceding” or “transferring” sovereignty to “Brussels”. The impact of such rhetoric on British public opinion over the coming from Mr Cameron and his colleagues in government should not be underestimated.
The present government has at least been willing sometimes to speak well of the European Union. Under a Conservative government any such counter-weight to the hysterical anti-Europeanism of wide sections of the British media will be entirely absent. At some point during his Premiership, Mr Cameron may well come to feel the consequences of his government’s anti-European posturing. He will need in due course to give an account of his success or otherwise in implementing the “flanking measures”, both domestic and European, with which he sought last week to make more palatable to his party his refusal to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. It will not be easy to give a convincing account of the implementation of these measures, which give every sign of being cobbled together in undignified haste. Mr Cameron came near to admitting as much when he recognised that further important details of his proposals would need to be decided over the coming weeks by a sub-committee under the chairmanship of William Hague.
Particularly problematic for the Conservative government will be its proposed “British Sovereignty Bill”, which Mr Cameron hopes will make Britain’s legal position within the European Union equivalent to that of Germany after the recent ruling of the German Constitutional Court. This seems to be based on a very partial understanding of the German ruling, which after all decided that the Lisbon treaty was compatible with the German constitution. The German Court did indeed warn the German government that it would continue to be vigilant in ensuring that future pooling of German sovereignty in the European Union continued to be compatible with the German constitution. The government should not assume it had a free hand in this matter. But what parallels can be established between the German system, with its written constitution and well-established Constitutional Court, and the much less formal British constitutional arrangements, is wholly mysterious.
Mr Cameron’s proposed Sovereignty Bill runs the risk of being simply a reassertion of the present position, which is that Britain can emancipate itself from the supremacy of European law by leaving the European Union whenever it wishes; or a real flouting of the United Kingdom’s European obligations by claiming some supremacy for British law over European law where the two conflict. Either of these outcomes might be equally politically uncomfortable for Mr Cameron.
Nor will his proposed “Referendum Bill” for holding of referendums on future European treaties be as technically and politically easy to draw up as he seems to assume. If sovereignty-sharing is the issue on which the Conservative Party believes the British electorate should always be directly consulted in future, it is difficult to see why there should not be a British referendum on the European treaty relating to Croatian accession next year or in 2011. Mr Cameron will have a tricky decision to make about whether his “Referendum Bill” should apply to future accession treaties or not.
Even if Mr Cameron is able to navigate successfully the perils inherent in his agenda of domestic legislation relating to the European Union, another set of problems will confront him in his dealings with the other twenty six governments of the European Union. Although he envisages only a modest range of points for renegotiation, limited essentially to social policy, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and criminal justice, it is difficult to the point of impossibility to imagine that he will be able to obtain substantial satisfaction on these matters. Any significant changes to the present legal position would need the unanimous agreement of all the United Kingdom’s partners. It is almost inconceivable that unanimity along these lines could be constructed, especially for any changes which might involve reopening any elements of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Mr Klaus was able to blackmail his colleagues in the European Council into accepting a final concession on the application of the Lisbon treaty to the Czech Republic. Now that the Lisbon treaty has been finally and so painfully ratified, the enormous majority of the Union’s member states will be eager to apply its new provisions rather than to renegotiate it. The need for unanimity which made the negotiation of the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties such a protracted affair will be a powerful barrier to even the modest degree of renegotiation which Mr Cameron now seeks. His Party is likely to view with a highly critical eye any attempts on his part to claim success on the basis of vague reassurances from the European Council. It will expect to see precisely the legally binding treaty changes which are so unlikely to be capable of achievement. Mr Cameron will need all his political skills and political will to make the likely outcome of his “renegotiation” acceptable to his party and indeed to much of British public opinion towards the end of what he hopes will be his first period as Prime Minister. In the second half of the next Parliament at the latest, the European issue will need to be confronted again within the Conservative Party. Mr Cameron obtained last week an armed truce, not a victory in his relationship with the most virulently Eurosceptic wing of his party.
In his speech last week, Mr Cameron specifically left open the possibility of a European referendum to be promised in the Conservative manifesto of 2014 or 2015, if he is unsuccessful in the European renegotiation that he now seeks. Whether he will forced to adopt that possibility in five years time, whether he will wish to do so, is likely to be a defining question of British politics halfway through the next decade.
If Zhou Enlai was unwilling to express a view on the French Revolution a hundred and fifty years after it happened, prudence demands the same hesitation before predicting what may happen to Mr Cameron and the Conservative Party in 2014 or 2015. But if Mr Cameron’s speech of last week stabilized expectations for the short term, the same certainly cannot be said for the position of the United Kingdom within the European Union in the longer term.
It was the Conservative Party which took Britain into the European Union and its original enthusiastic commitment to the Union was the rock upon which the pro-European cause was built in the first years of British membership. There will always be an instability at the heart of British attitudes towards the Union until the Conservative Party either abandons its radical euroscepticism or draws the logical conclusion from it. Mr Cameron is clearly reluctant to make that choice.
Events and the promises given last week may well force him to do so, not in the immediate future, but in the nearer future than he would like.
Brendan Donnelly is Chair of Federal Union and Director of the Federal Trust. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of either Federal Union or the Federal Trust. November 2009.