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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John Prescott on Labour: “This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen”

The Labour peer and former deputy prime minister laments his party’s “civil war status”, saying “I wish Momentum would go away”.

I’ve attended a thousand PLP meetings. This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen. It is more about personality politics than in the past.

The [last] Labour government was successful in most of the issues that we always thought was important to Labour: in the growth of the hospitals, the education system, the economy, people at work. All that was a successful record.

Not that it’s ever mentioned now. It was soured largely by Iraq. That period is almost obliterated by that. So you find present government, or even present leadership, in no way refers to that period of the Labour government. So the real problem is, if you’re disowning the most successful three periods of a Labour government, then you’re in some difficulty as to what you’re replacing it with.

It’s never happened before – it’s open war, civil war, inside the PLP. Some members in the PLP sit there with their social media, already typing out the fight going on to the mass of reporters who are amassed outside and told to come along and report because there’s going to be a big row. All that means we can’t really have unity. The division now is the attack on the leadership. A core who sit in the same places, make the same accusations against the leadership, right or wrong, every bloody week. They do it by a death of a thousand cuts – keep on making the same complaints.

I just think that the PLP is in civil war status. It’s not carrying out what it should do – that is, project Labour’s policies and be supportive of our people in the field.

All this criticism is about removing him. And then what adds to that is when Tom Watson comes along and joins in with this criticism. He’s entitled to do so, but he is the Deputy Leader, for God’s sake – quite different from the way I saw the role as defined; to support the party in a positive way, right. Get out and increase his membership, etc.

And the Leader, he's faced with a really difficult position, because he was elected and had never been a minister before. My heart went out to him when he had to deal with PMQs. Even with my 50 years, I found it impossible and fell on my face a few times.

We have a shadow cabinet now – cor blimey, you can be in the shadow cabinet in 12 months! You do need to have a bit of experience. So that does affect it, without a doubt. Then you get people on one side who refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet criticising the shadow cabinet. If you join the shadow cabinet, you’re a traitor to one cause or the other.

It's how you manage that division. The leadership is critical – for Jeremy to go out and do all of these things when he’s not been a minister is difficult. I think he’s been improving in doing the job. But frankly, it gets into people’s minds in a very short period of time, whether they think you’re the leader or not. And we do have a dilemma. It’s difficult for him – he’s reaching out a bit now, but almost the list has been drawn. I can’t see these people coming across now and uniting in the name of the party, supporting our people out in the elections. If you can’t unite the party, how the hell can you carry the country?

There are problems on the left and problems on the right, but we’ve always managed them – especially in the PLP. Robust arguments. But now it’s the battlefield, and all that comes out is a divided party.

I’m an old Labour man, right, I’m Labour to the core. To sit and watch it waste away its great reputation, what it’s done for our people in the country, and then when our people start stopping to vote for us, you’ve got to ask what’s bloody going wrong.

What Jeremy does is his decision. But he’s made clear he wants to stay. Now, if that stays the same, and the others stay the same, we’re going to have a stalemate divided Labour party – it’s disastrous.

So on the one hand, the PLP could try to be a little bit more supportive, and to recognise the party’s elected a leader, or they can go through the same process come June and call for another election, put it to the vote. They’re the options given to us by our party.

Our bloody country is decimated and we’re talking about the fucking sponsorship rules for the election of leader! I wish Momentum would go away, they’ve given us the same problems we had with Militant. I don’t think they’re as powerful as Militant, but they’re dedicated to the same cause. Their debate is how you change the Labour party.

By Christ, we can't win like this! I’m an old-fashioned type, and I’m proud to have belonged to a team that did win three elections. There was no other leader who did that before. But I don’t put it down to leaders, I put it down to the nature of the party. We’re responsible, not the leaders.

John Prescott is a Labour peer and former deputy leader of the Labour Party.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition