Cameron finally has a coherent Europe policy - but does his party want to listen?

The PM is inching towards a sceptical but engaged role in Europe. But his MPs won't be bought off.

After the umpteen crisis summits that have dominated Brussels-night life, last week's meeting of EU leaders was one of the dullest in recent memory. With the clock well past 3am, bleary-eyed leaders stumbled along to brief the no-less bleary-eyed Brussels press corps that, after ten hours of painstaking negotiating, a couple of words in the summit conclusions had been changed.

Three months after agreeing to create a single supervisor for the eurozone by the end of 2012, EU leaders confirmed that they had actually meant it and that the legal framework would be in place by the end of 2012.

But while leaders lined up to put their own national spin on the banking union agreement, David Cameron's Friday morning press briefing was significant, not just because of what he said, but also the way he said it.  In the course of a 20 minute briefing Cameron referred to "a new settlement" for both the eurozone and Britain about five times. Every time he spoke of the necessity of a banking union and deeper integration for the eurozone in the next breath he added that Britain would not be involved in any of it.

As a statement of fact, it is hard to disagree with him. Deeper integration of the eurozone will change Britain's relationship with the EU. Whether it is bank supervision by the ECB, a specific budget for the eurozone or a single Treasury for the single currency, all have as profound implications for the 10 countries outside the eurozone as for the eurozone-17. All, particularly Denmark and Sweden, the two other countries where euro-membership is squarely off the political agenda, will have big decisions to make, but a multi-speed Europe will surely become even clearer than it already is.

The first question is whether Cameron genuinely wants Britain to have second division membership and, if so, whether other countries will let him. Although Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith lead the 'get-outer' faction in his cabinet, it seems clear that Cameron does not want Britain to leave the EU. In fact, he was at pains to repeat his commitment to Britain's EU membership, particularly to the single market, and to the country's 'euro-realism' on foreign policy.

The Cameron-doctrine on Europe seems to boil down to the following: pro-single market and in favour of ad hoc co-operation on foreign policy and blanket opposition to everything else - from the euro and JHA policy to social policy. However, while there is plenty to criticise from a left or liberal perspective, it is an ideologically coherent and thoroughly Tory approach.

At the same time, however, his government continues to add fuel to the perception that Cameron's EU policy is one of outright hostility. Indeed, after a week in which his government decided to opt out of over 130 legal acts on justice and home affairs policy and senior ministers mooted the possibility of a referendum on the EU within a year of the next election expected in 2015, the remark by Finland's Europe minister, Alex Stubb, that Britain was waving "bye, bye to Europe" is understandable. One of the Tories' main weaknesses on Europe is their lack of any significant allies and it is hard to see how Cameron can secure the opt-outs his party craves if he constantly provokes hostility from other European governments

That is why Cameron should tread carefully at November's specially convened EU budget summit. Angela Merkel has already thrown down the gauntlet, threatening to call off the summit - a veto to pre-empt a veto - if Cameron and William Hague continue to demand big reductions in EU spending. The entire EU budget only represents 1 per cent of GDP and the funds being argued about between countries are pretty small - around 0.1 per cent of GDP. But if it is already hard to see other countries agreeing to more British opt-outs, holding the rest of Europe to ransom over a tiny proportion of the EU budget would be completely counterproductive.

The other question is whether his party is prepared to listen. One of the mistakes Cameron made early on was to think that he could buy off his eurosceptics. Despite pulling his MEP delegation out of the centre-right European People's Party group and putting a "referendum lock" into UK law, many Tory activists are still convinced that their leader is a kool-aid slurping federalist and will accept nothing short of as many 'in/out' referendums as it takes to get the right result.

However, it is not as if either Labour or the Liberal Democrats have a coherent Europe policy around which to take advantage of Cameron's contortions. Since being ousted from power in 2010, Labour has taken a conscious decision not to be a hostage to fortune by laying down detailed policy platforms and Europe is no exception. Senior figures in the party are even considering whether to steal a march on the Tories by promising a referendum on Britain's EU membership in their next manifesto, a high risk strategy for no obvious political gain considering that the party won't convince anyone if it tries to 'out-sceptic' the Conservatives.

As for the Lib Dems, the only way that their pro-EU stance will be a vote-winner is if they use it in 2014 to despatch Nick Clegg to Brussels as Britain's next Commissioner, conveniently a year before facing the wrath of the electorate the following year.

Europe has been one of the most destructive forces in the Conservative party for over twenty years. After wrangling over the ERM and attitudes to European integration contributed to Thatcher's downfall, John Major's government was wrecked by civil war over the Maastricht Treaty and, since then, the Tories have repeatedly failed to articulate a policy position capable of getting grass-roots support and being put into practice. But now eurozone integration seems set to formally create a club within a club. Cameron acknowledges this and is inching towards a sceptical but engaged role in Europe. The question is whether other European leaders, and his party activists, are ready to listen.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

David Cameron gives a press conference on the final day of an EU summit in Brussels on 19 October 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder