LONDON – David Cameron’s veto at the E.U. summit has unleashed a storm here that could have nefarious consequences both for the United Kingdom’s economy and his coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Euroskeptic Tories may be celebrating the prime minister as a hero, but his appearance in Brussels may not have been all that heroic. There are indications that Cameron quite simply gambled it all away.
The storm unleashed by Cameron’s 'no' to changing E.U. treaties is the most severe since the British coalition government took office in the spring of 2010. No one knows what the outcome will be, but one prognosis is shared by all: It could be very bad indeed.
The conflict between the Europe-friendly Liberal Democrats and the Europe-skeptics among the Tories touches the very substance of the coalition. And yet conciliation of the camps appears unlikely. Cameron’s challenge now is to somehow get right-leaning members of his own party and the Liberal Democrats back to the table. Either that or face new elections.
Up until now, the conservatives knew Nick Clegg, the head of the Liberal Democrats, as a compliant junior partner. Whatever they wanted, he went along with. Most notably, he agreed with the Tories to raise college tuitions, even though his party promised during the election campaign to do away with them.
But now Clegg – who waited two days before launching his attacks – has found a means of recovering his reputation. He has not only criticized the prime minister openly about the E.U. veto but is demanding that Cameron do everything he can to move Great Britain back towards Europe again.
Closeness to Europe is one of the core Liberal Democrat policies. Clegg would have lost his last supporters in his own party if he had gone along with the veto the Tories are celebrating. Instead he’s found an issue that not only can help him shed the “opportunist” label but that also poses a threat to David Cameron.
An immediate danger
The Euroskeptics in his party don’t seem particularly worried at the moment. Actually they’re in a state of euphoria, as are the country’s conservative newspapers, which are drawing parallels between this and King Henry VIII’s decision (five centuries ago) to separate the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Expect the celebrating to continue as the Tories have the British public on their side. According to a Times poll, 57% of Brits believe that Cameron did the right thing in Brussels.
Nevertheless, the question does pose itself as to whether Cameron’s veto was really as heroic as the ultra-conservatives are portraying it. Increasing numbers of reports are saying that Cameron’s appearance in Brussels was, from a diplomatic point of view, miserably prepared. The other leaders at the summit were at a complete loss to understand his tactics. It may very well be, in other words, that the most consequential decision of Cameron’s political career was quite simply the result of an astonishing amount of foreign policy naïveté.
Nobody can seriously believe that Great Britain’s waning influence in Europe won’t have consequences for its economy. The conservative government is steering a severe austerity course and is looking at a recession. More than ever, Cameron needs to achieve greater independence from the financial markets and strengthen British industry – which depends to a high degree on the European single market that Cameron just gave the cold shoulder to.
What Cameron is doing is repeating an historic mistake. Great Britain kept its distance during the early years of the European Economic Community (Common Market), which was founded in 1957. The economy suffered as a result. U.K. leaders then changed their tune, applying for membership in 1961. From there, however, the country would have to wait 12 years for application process to finally conclude.
Whatever Cameron’s veto may mean for Great Britain’s relations with the European Union, the prime minister has backed himself into a precarious situation at home. The coalition may break apart. That the Europe-skeptics are uncompromising was shown in October when, in a spectacular vote against the moderate Cameron, 81 Tory MPs supported a call for referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. And now that the Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves so openly against the prime minister, they can’t give in either if they don’t want to lose all their credibility.
Nick Clegg himself is unlikely to take the conflict to extremes – he has shown himself to be flexible to the point of spinelessness. But his party could be tired of betraying its ideals. The worst case scenario would be if Liberal Democrat members of parliament broke away from the coalition. That would mean, from every point of view, that when David Cameron said ‘no’ in Brussels he made the worst decision of any prime minister in recent British history.
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