Britain's most important relationship is now with Germany

David Cameron should have paid more attention to European diplomacy and been nicer to Angela Merkel

I mentioned in my column this week that Nick Clegg had been despatched to Brussels to work his polyglot, Euro-expert "Heineken" act - reaching the diplomatic parts other ministers cannot reach. An important part of that process, I gather, is trying to steer the UK's EU partners away from radical treaty change in response to the single currency crisis.

As I've written before, the ultimate demand the markets seem to be making of the eurozone is that Germany stand behind the troubled southern states be deed more than word. That certainly means tougher rules inside the eurozone; it probably also means institutional harmonisation - the "remorseless logic" of deeper fiscal integration that George Osborne has talked about.

But if that turns into a massive EU treaty re-negotiation (or even a less than massive one), Conservative Eurosceptics would demand that David Cameron threaten to wield a veto and demand "repatriation of powers" in return, and possibly a full renegotiation of Britain's EU status. Any new EU treaty would also be subject to powerful demands for a referendum - and not just in the UK. It could trigger a process that might unravel the Union. Not surprisingly, Clegg doesn't like the sound of this. He is a genuine pro-European and he also knows that a treaty renegotiation would put an intolerable strain on coalition relations. There was a passage in his speech on Wednesday that got less attention than it deserved, I thought:

I fully support the goal of better oversight, but I also feel that it is right to caution against returning to the EU's founding texts without first seeing if we can meet these objectives through other means. Our priorities are stability and growth - and they are urgent. To sit around tables for months on end, agonising over this article or that one, becoming engulfed in endless institutional introspection, would be a huge political distraction from the economic task at hand. The danger is that fixating on the treaties will obscure what is really needed. Treaty change should not be a surrogate for political will.

That is the public version. In private I'm fairly sure Clegg will be more explicit with his continental partners about the dangers that a new treaty would pose in terms of stoking up destructive Europhobia back home.

The key relationship here is with Germany. It is the Germans who will want to see the euro made stable with serious rules-based institutional reform as the quid pro quo for putting their domestic finances on the line and for allowing the ECB to betray (as Berlin sees it) the sound money traditions of the old Bundesbank, printing money for a bail out. One official I spoke to says the German cabinet is talking about "pretty ambitious" treaty changes. But a source close to the Deputy Prime Minister says they can be persuaded otherwise.

Either way, Britain's future relationship with the European Union more than ever now relies on the effectiveness of our diplomatic relations with Germany.

A final thought: Knowing all this, I wonder if David Cameron ever regrets pulling the Conservative party out of the European People's Party grouping in the European Parliament. It was a gesture to appease his party's sceptics and a commitment he made in order to be elected Tory leader. He must have thought at the time it was a free hit. (He wasn't then much interested in Europe, thinking the whole issue was toxic and best avoided.)

But Angela Merkel was very angry at the move - her CDU party is in the EPP and she felt snubbed by the Tories' formation of a different group with some decidedly marginal, smaller and more nationalistic European parties. It took quite a lot of effort to persuade the German Chancellor that Cameron was a mature European politician who understood how the EU actually worked. Diplomats and ministers will privately admit that the decision to quit the EPP cost the Tories - and by extension the UK - influence in Europe. There was, for example, a dinner for senior EPP figures on the eve of the last emergency European Council summit. On the guest list: Jose Manuel Barosso, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Herman van Rompuy ... and no one from Britain.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

0800 7318496