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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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.