David Cameron at No 10 with Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, 23 June. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Britain’s growing Europe problem

The aim of the Prime Minister’s European policy was never to protect Britain’s best interests within Europe but to appease restive backbenchers.

So which is David Cameron: reckless or incompetent? That was the question Poland’s anglophile foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski (an old Oxford and Bullingdon Club acquaintance of Boris Johnson), posed during a private meal. “He f***ed up the fiscal pact,” the magazine Wprost reported Mr Sikorski as saying. “Because he’s not interested, because he doesn’t know, because he believes in all that stupid propaganda and is trying stupidly to manipulate the system.”

This was not a tactical leak. What it revealed was that Mr Cameron has succeeded in alienating even Britain’s closest European partners, without winning a single concession to our national interest from them.

A further difficulty was looming for Mr Cameron as we went to press. At a meeting scheduled for Friday 27 June, the British government hoped to force a vote in an attempt to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy to become the new president of the European Commission. However, the UK lacks the goodwill to make this case. Mr Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, is a federalist. His selection as the candidate for the presidency to succeed Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso would highlight Mr Cameron’s poli­tical weakness, even irrelevance, and act as an obstacle to his aspiration to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union.

For all the noise surrounding the debate about the EU, there is a remarkable degree of consensus about the best policies to promote Britain’s national interests in Europe. The leaderships of the three main parties favour reform of European institutions; all want to protect the single market; and all are determined to resist “ever closer union”. Both Labour and Conservative politicians have expressed an interest in restricting the free movement of labour within the EU.

The essential difference between the parties is not one of goals but of tactics. Labour politicians have generally clothed their desire to repatriate powers and resist further integration in the language of commitment and compromise. The Conservatives, by contrast, have attempted to coerce ostensible allies with threats of a British exit from the EU.

The aim of the Prime Minister’s European policy was never to protect Britain’s best interests within Europe but to appease restive backbenchers. Under his leadership, the Tories withdrew from the European People’s Party grouping, abandoning a coalition of the mainstream European centre right for the company of xenophobes and cranks. Tories have characterised eastern European immigrants as benefit tourists. And Mr Cameron has guaranteed that a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU would be held in 2017, if not before then.

If all of this was intended to ensure the loyalty of Eurosceptic backbenchers, it has failed: Mr Cameron’s attempts to appease the right have merely emboldened it. As Alex Salmond said, in an interview with the NS last year: “You can never out-swivel-eye the swivel-eyed.”

In Brussels, meanwhile, this strategy has weakened both the government’s influence and its credibility. Mr Cameron possibly assumed that other European leaders could be cajoled into acceding to Britain’s demands.

The Prime Minister ignored the reality that they have anxious electorates and sceptical backbenchers, too. Having staked everything on being granted reforms that he seems ever more unlikely to achieve, there is a chance that Mr Cameron’s legacy will be Britain’s accidental abandonment of the European project.

This is a result that very few senior British politicians favour, certainly not William Hague. He was an ardently Eurosceptic leader of the Conservatives but has been an impressively pragmatic Foreign Secretary. Some of his colleagues have even complained of his having been “captured” by the pro-European mandarins at the Foreign Office.

If there is any consolation for the UK’s supine pro-European lobby, it comes, unexpectedly, from Nigel Farage. As Ukip’s poll ratings have risen, so has support for Britain’s continued EU membership. It is possible that, by associating Euroscepticism with fear and xenophobia, Mr Farage has made the case for Europe in a way his mainstream rivals never could. 

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.