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Has Cameron saved the EU?

David Cameron's self-imposed marginalisation of the Tories in Brussels may help in an EU struggling

It’s been a common refrain since the rejection of the EU’s Constitutional Treaty in 2005 that the spirit of European integration is in peril.

Recent events in the Czech Republic - notably the collapse of its government in March - which assumed the EU Presidency at the start of the year, have done little to dispel this notion.

Although the Lisbon Treaty has subsequently been passed by the Czech Senate, a signature from its eurosceptic president is likely to prove elusive for now.

Meanwhile, the EU enlargement process is being increasingly held hostage by individual EU countries in their bilateral ructions with applicant states.

Above all, it is the bloc’s reaction to the economic downturn that has moved committed EU-integrationists to despair. They lament what they see as the return to fruitless inter-European co-operation, rooted in self-interest.

A number of member states (France has been singled out for special attention) are accused of reinterpreting EU rules and retreating into protectionism. And the once bountiful German Bundesrepublik, long regarded as the cash cow of European integration, has proved reticent about bankrolling what it sees as the glut of political actionism characterising the EU escape-plan from the financial crisis.

Yet, amid all this gloom, one factor at least should console pro-Europeans: the European spirit has been offered a lifeline in the form of a weakened British presence in Brussels.

At a time when member states are increasingly out for what they can get, Britain, blighted by a self-imposed state of marginalisation, will prove ever more unable to assert itself. In such a state, it is unwittingly keeping the European spirit alive.

One example of this inadvertent selflessness is the British contingent's impending isolation in the European Parliament.

The Conservatives’ decision to withdraw from the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) in the European Parliament has been picked dry by commentators. But one aspect of the move has largely escaped attention: the way it will affect British influence in Europe.

The British government lobbies Conservative MEPs hard on economic and financial issues, viewing them as a potential conduit for British interests.

Yet, with their exit from the dominant grouping in the EU Parliament, the Conservatives will renounce much of their influence over the direction of European policy: the parliamentary posts that accrue to the Tories thanks to their relationship with the EPP-ED will dwindle, and the links that the EPP-ED fosters between the Conservatives and centre-right governments all over Europe will be strained.

With this will go something of the British government’s influence over centre-right parties across the continent.

Combined with Labour's predicted electoral meltdown in June's EU elections, the British government can expect to struggle to influence goings-on in the European Parliament over the coming legislative period (2009-2014).

But it is not just in the European Parliament that Britain’s influence could wane.

Whitehall will be equally squeamish about the threat of the UK being sidelined in EU economic and financial policymaking in the Council of Ministers — a by-product of the Labour government’s “half-in/half-out” attitude towards EU integration.

One of the clearest indicators of Britain’s growing isolation on these matters is the UK’s exclusion from important political groupings of European member states, like the so-called Eurogroup, which have a strong influence on the direction of EU policy debates in the Council.

The Eurogroup meets regularly to discuss matters of economic, fiscal and monetary policy — subjects of particular importance to the UK during the current state of global financial affairs.

Britain's hesitation towards entering the Economic and Monetary Union means that Eurogroup meetings which cover issues relevant to the UK proceed without it, leaving the British contingent somewhat in the shadows of policy discussion.

The UK’s isolation will become even more acute as the EU’s newest members adopt the Euro in the coming years.

Moreover, whereas such meetings have usually occurred at ministerial level, last October a Eurogroup summit was held for the first time for member heads of state and government. Gordon Brown attended, even though Britain is not in the Eurozone. It may, however, have been a one-off gesture.

Although the UK remains important for the EMU’s health, there is pressure for such summits to be reserved exclusively for Eurozone members in future. At any rate, the UK cannot expect the gesture to be automatically renewed should similar high-level meetings take place again.

It is ironic, then, that just as the British are “winning arguments in Europe” on matters from banking regulation to energy-market liberalisation, the structure supporting its influence is gradually crumbling away.

This growing structural isolation gives the next British representative at the European Commission a position of some importance for those in Whitehall who still aspire to see Britain steer the course of EU integration.

European Commissioners are not appointed as national representatives, and are instead supposed to act independently. All the same, Whitehall Mandarins may well hope that the next British representative at the European Commission will actively push UK priorities.

Unfortunately for Whitehall, a President of the incoming European Commission aware of Britain’s structural marginalisation in Europe could view the British Commissioner as just such a conduit for national interests.

A President with aspirations to steer and dominate his or her Commissioners will probably resist affording too much weight to someone deemed likely to promote the interests of a large EU member state like the UK.

Thus, while Britain plays itself offside, its EU counterparts will get on with the business of governing Europe, leaving the UK with less say in Brussels than it has done for years.