David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the EU Council building in Brussels on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Behind the gun-slinging sceptic act, Cameron is a good European. Will he dare show it in public?

The Prime Minister can see the strategic as well as the economic logic that keeps Britain in Europe.

The European Union looks more attractive when the alternative is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It isn’t a choice Britain has to make, which is one reason our Eurosceptics get away with fantastical depictions of Brussels as a conspiracy against democracy.

That is plainly not the view of many Ukrainians. President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an  EU Association Agreement last November was the spur to the demonstrations that resulted last week in violent regime change. It isn’t clear what the nature of the new government in Kiev will be, nor whether it can represent those Ukrainians whose cultural allegiances steer them towards Moscow.

This is no fairy tale of pro-western democrats unseating easterly despotism. Yet it is also naive to pretend that Ukraine isn’t the rope in a strategic tug of war between an alliance of European democracies that respect the rule of law and Russia, which doesn’t. Ukraine’s insurgent administration will be bailed out by the EU or it will fail and Moscow will arrange for a client successor.

The first senior foreign dignitary to arrive in Kiev after Yanukovych’s fall was Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. Other nations might be proud that one of their compatriots led this vanguard mission. We barely noticed.

The top foreign-policy post in Brussels was granted to Britain’s nominee in 2009 in recognition of the country’s status as one of the Union’s big diplomatic beasts. It was also an investment by other EU members in Britain’s enduring participation in the project and an acknowledgment that refusal to join the single currency needn’t herald London’s relegation to second-tier status.

That spirit that has been repaid with a surge in national exceptionalism. Since 2010, the UK’s European policy has been dictated by Conservative MPs who are repelled by continental power-sharing, even when it has the effect of amplifying Britain’s voice in the world. The idea of cross-border collaboration as a source of strategic strength is fundamental to most member states’ understanding of what the EU is for and alien to British discussion of the topic.

On the eastern side of the continent, the attraction is obvious. EU membership brought prosperity, stability and security to former communist states. Their absorption in a few short years of European law was an act of collective bureaucratic heroism.

Britain’s stance as an eager advocate of enlargement created stores of diplomatic goodwill in the new member states. Those have since been depleted by Conservative ministers fomenting public fear of a welfare-snaffling eastern invasion, which is unfortunate given David Cameron’s inevitable reliance on countries such as Poland and Romania should his plans for EU reform ever come to a summit vote.

On that front, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic capital is currently all being spent on Germany. No butter was spared in the buttering up of Angela Merkel during her visit to the UK on 27 February. Downing Street has been talking up areas where the German Chancellor might be amenable to the kind of changes Cameron proposes, but those barely count as hors d’oeuvre on the menu of items from which Tory backbenchers expect their leader to order his new relationship with Brussels. There is no chance of Merkel or any other EU leader satisfying their appetite. The German chancellor doesn’t want Britain to leave the EU and will strive to help Cameron as long as doing so matches her own and her country’s interests. What she won’t do is sabotage other European alliances or alienate her domestic audience trying to appease Tory hardliners who she knows cannot be appeased and whose influence over British policy she finds exasperating.

Besides, Cameron may not be Prime Minister after May 2015. In private, German officials note that Merkel has no incentive to get too involved in a British “renegotiation” that becomes obsolete if Downing Street ends up under new management.

Beneath all of these tactical considerations is the bigger problem that Merkel has faith in a European project that transcends mercantile economics, while Cameron’s arms are twisted behind his back by people who believe Britain is traduced every time the EU’s ambitions stray beyond trade.

In practice, the Prime Minister, like all his recent predecessors, can see the strategic as well as the economic logic that keeps Britain in Europe. Also like his predecessors, he hides that insight from the public. As recently as December 2013, Cameron signed up to defence co-operation measures that risked being spun as community-spirited European integration. So he felt obliged to boast on the sidelines of the summit that he had rejected an EU army, for which no one had called, and preserved the primacy of Nato as the west’s foremost military alliance, which had never been in doubt.

The butchery of straw men has become a feature of British briefing in Brussels. It perpetuates the myth that Europeanism is something that other countries do to us if we drop our guard. Or, as Cameron put it with facile concision last June: “In this town you have to be ready for an ambush at any time and that means lock and load.”

But the PM cannot play the good European in private and the gun-slinging sceptic in public for much longer. It is weak diplomacy and self-defeating politics. Britain doesn’t want to lose strategic influence in Europe and for the foreseeable future, the EU is the club where mid-sized European democracies agglomerate into a global power. Angela Merkel knows it. Vladimir Putin knows it. A penniless mob of angry Ukrainians knows it. David Cameron knows it too: he just hopes to get through an election campaign without being forced to say it out loud.

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

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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