Cameron's heart clearly isn't in Europe

The Prime Minister knows Britain is economically dependent on the eurozone, but he finds emerging ma

 

One of the more revealing passages in David Cameron’s speech on the economy yesterday was the section in which he talked about global trade.

When the Prime Minister talks about Europe and the eurozone, he exudes frustration and impatience. He would like to lead a discussion in Brussels about the kinds of reforms - liberalisation and widening the single market – that he believes are the prerequisites for growth. He must also know that building the alliances required to achieve those reforms and getting them approved by every EU member state will be diplomatic torture. Besides, there is still the small matter of the eurozone crisis to be resolved. A new digital services directive is not at the top of most European leaders’ priority lists. Cameron has no natural interest in or affection for the process of getting deals done in Europe and it shows.

By contrast, when he talks about the opportunities for British exports outside Europe he sounds almost evangelical. He talks about “coalitions of the willing” to press ahead with free trade deals. In Europe, he sees crisis, elsewhere he sees opportunity:

The globalisation of demand means new countries demanding our products, fuelling new jobs at home. If we make the most of this, there is a huge opportunity to secure a great future for our country. And that is why as we get through crisis, I believe we can look ahead with confidence.

In an essay for the magazine this week I mention the attention paid in Downing Street to arguments about the long term growth potential in Asia and Latin America as offering a potential alternative source of economic engagement to Europe. This “networked world” thesis – the idea that proximity should not be the arbiter of trade preferences - is a favourite of ultra-sceptics in the Tory party. It is generally dismissed by pro-Europeans as a fantasy that pays no heed to geography, history, culture or diplomacy. Eurozone trade was the only thing that stopped the UK from going into recession last year. Europe is the market of existential importance to our economy. And, crucially, there is no reason why the EU should allow Britain to retain all of its current trade privileges, while opting out of the various aspects of economic and political integration Tory sceptics happen to dislike. The scenario where we retain free access to the single market while unburdened/unprotected by EU regulation is a fantasy.

But I sense a growing suspicion at the very top of the Conservative party that the EU might be (a) in decline and (b) incapable of reform. One Downing Street advisor complained to me recently that Britain would have a much better bilateral trade deal with India if we weren’t shackled by the need to negotiate as part of the EU.

Current political and diplomatic reality demands constant engagement with Europe. But it is easy to imagine Cameron at a G8 or G20 summit feeling more and more irritated by his entanglement with the eurozone and contemplating that little bit more seriously the cost-benefit analysis of the UK going it alone. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.