The summit where everyone lost

European leaders are claiming victory, but nothing has been resolved. And Britain is in the worst of

What a mess. Although leaders sought, with tedious predictability, to portray themselves as victors, last week's summit in Brussels was one where everybody lost. David Cameron used a veto which did not block anything, and instead relegated Britain to semi-detached EU status. Angela Merkel won a treaty that may never be ratified and with terms that most countries will not be able to keep to. And although the European Central Bank has been handed control over the two EU bail-out funds, and the IMF given an extra €200bn, there is still no "big bazooka' to calm the financial markets. The euro crisis has not been resolved.

British eurosceptics took to the airwaves to celebrate David Cameron's surprising move to veto plans for a very modest - and very conservative - treaty revision. The problem is that a veto implies the ability to stop something, whereas treaty change is going to happen anyway.

But what has Cameron won? The safeguards for the City that he talked about? Nope, even though President Van Rompuy had worked on texts with Cameron's officials before the summit started. It was when Cameron demanded that the UK should be exempted from financial regulation that the problems started. This was always going to be an impossible demand, but Cameron and his officials knew this and had prepared protocols and declarations that, without being guarantees, would have been enough to take back to London. Although Sarkozy initially refused this, Cameron should have been able to win out eventually. Unfortunately, Cameron, already regarded as a diplomatic lightweight by most leaders, over-played his hand, threatened a veto and Sarkozy called his bluff.

It is hard to understand why he chose, as Lord Kerr put it, to "pick up the ball and walk off the pitch before the game started". This was, remember, just a summit. A new treaty was not decided here, only the principals. It would have been quite natural for Cameron to take the deal to the House of Commons in order to establish a clear and detailed mandate for further negotiation.

Cameron has actually done his party and the moderate eurosceptics in his party no good. Although dramatically wielding the veto guaranteed 24 hours of positive coverage from eurosceptics, the reality is that Britain has been left with the worst of all worlds. He didn't win any safeguards - in fact, the City will almost certainly pay a large price as the UK was already struggling to find allies on financial regulation in the Council of Ministers and will now find it even harder -and an unnecessary and politically dangerous, treaty will go through anyway with Britain locked out of the room. Only the Conservatives who actually want Britain to leave the EU should be happy.

Indeed, an "in/out" referendum on our EU membership is now almost inevitable. Conservatives will soon grow frustrated at paying higher costs for fewer of the benefits of membership. If Cameron remains committed to EU membership, this will push more Tories into the arms of Ukip and the BNP.

Friday's BBC Newsnight programme, which treated us to Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott and Bernard Jenkin tearing lumps out of each other, highlighted the new tension that will divide the coalition. Yet amidst Oakeshott's anger and Jenkin's gloating came one revealing admission: Jenkin did not, he said, want Britain to leave the EU. Instead, he saw the summit as the first step towards re-negotiating our terms of membership and repatriating some powers. Jenkin's remarks are representative of most Tory MPs. But he is either disingenuous or stunningly naïve. Any goodwill towards the Conservatives has now evaporated - even though right-wing parties are in power in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. There is only one option facing Britain in the future: stay in or sod off.

There is nothing here for Europhiles to rejoice over either. As the only country not to take the summit deal back to their national parliament, the UK has been firmly established as a semi-detached member of the EU. Having worked hard to win allies and influence following the enmity caused by the Iraq war, Labour and Lib Dem MEPs will now have to cope with the suspicion and anger of their European sister-parties. The notion that Britain is intrinsically anti-European, disruptive and a "wrecker" will be hard to shift. They will also have to cope with a national debate on EU policy that will, even more than before, be divided along in/out lines.

The treaty proposals also demonstrated how toothless the European left currently is. Conservatives are now in power in Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain, and the terms of reference have been dictated by Merkel and, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy. The result is, as Owen Jones remarked, a treaty that locks in austerity for the eurozone. In particular, establishing a 0.5 per cent ceiling for structural deficits is a rule that few countries will be able to adhere to and will make it impossible for countries to pursue expansionary policies in the short or medium term. Europe's economies desperately need to achieve better budgetary discipline, but this is more of a strait-jacket than a life-jacket.

However, it is interesting that both François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, and Peer Steinbruck, the leader of the German SPD, have both attacked the proposals. Merkel remains a highly embattled Chancellor while Hollande, twenty points ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, is likely to be President within months. If the Merkozy duopoly stays committed to a full treaty change, then ratification will be very bumpy and uncertain.

But while the euro crisis remains unresolved, a new crisis has been created concerning Britain's status in the EU. Cameron has achieved the unique feat of leading his party inexorably towards another disastrous split over Europe while driving a decisive wedge between him and his Lib Dem coalition partners. More importantly, he has ensured that a summit about the future of the euro will instead be remembered as the time when Britain willingly isolated itself for no reward and moved dangerously close to Europe's exit door.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser