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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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war