Will the Conservatives' charm offensive endure?

Will the Conservatives' charm offensive endure?

Bulletin article
01 June 2010

The Eurosceptic conservatives are back in power, yet the government they lead is courting Britain's EU partners. In their early meetings with European leaders, David Cameron and his senior ministers have been all smiles and politesse. The new Europe minister, David Lidington, is a thoughtful moderate. And should the Conservatives' eurosceptic instincts re-emerge, the pro-EU Liberal Democrats will still be there in the coalition to restrain them. But can Britain's European honeymoon last?

The coalition itself looks like lasting, one reason being that Europe may be a less divisive issue than some had imagined. Before the election, Cameron decided that a Conservative government should avoid battles with the EU, lest it be distracted from tackling economic problems at home. Cameron probably shed few tears when the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats discarded his party's most eurosceptic policies. Gone is the promise to negotiate opt-outs from the EU treaties on justice, the charter of fundamental rights and social policy. The idea of a UK Sovereignty Act – which eurosceptics hope to use to strike down EU laws or court rulings – will be "examined", which probably means forgotten.

The coalition agreement retains three pledges designed to keep right-wingers happy. One is to stay out of the euro – but nobody expected Britain to join. Another is that any use of the Lisbon treaty's 'passerelle' clauses – which could extend the use of majority voting – would require legislation. But British law already prevents the use of a passerelle without a vote in both houses of Parliament. Third, there will have to be a referendum on any new treaty that transfers powers to the EU. That is less significant than it sounds: there is no prospect of all 27 EU countries agreeing to revise the treaties so soon after the protracted battle over the Lisbon treaty. None of this satisfies hard-line eurosceptics in the Conservative Party and their allies in the popular press.

They are preparing to battle the Conservative leadership (and their Lib Dem allies) over Europe. Unfortunately, the government's charm offensive comes just when the fabric binding EU states together is suffering severe strain. The euro crisis – which is likely to last several years – is undermining trust and solidarity among EU governments, and damaging the EU's image. This will make it hard for the UK's governing coalition to encourage a more reasoned British conversation about Europe.

Several contentious issues threaten to provoke clashes between Britain and its partners. One is eurozone governance. Finance ministers are working on new rules for budget deficits and mutual economic surveillance. Britain's non-participation in the euro does not necessarily mean it can escape all the new rules. A second will be the creation of new bodies to regulate Europe's financial markets. Although the City of London dominates these markets, Britain risks being outvoted on the legislation. A third is a forthcoming report on the EU budget from the Commission. Because the economic crisis has severely stretched public finances in all EU countries, governments are likely to be particularly intransigent when negotiating the next EU budget.

Any government that wants to do well in such arguments needs allies. But ever since the Conservatives walked out of the European People's Party (EPP), the leading force in the European Parliament, they have had few powerful friends. The ruling parties of France, Germany, Italy and Poland are all in the EPP. Of course, British influence in Europe depends on much more than alignments in the European Parliament. The new government needs to do two things, in particular, to increase its clout in the EU.

First it should come up with positive contributions to EU policy-making. Britain has ideas and expertise that could be useful to the EU in areas like the single market, energy, climate change, police cooperation, foreign policy and defence (though eurosceptics want the EU to stay out of defence). Many Europeans would welcome British initiatives, because the Union is suffering from a leadership vacuum. The Franco-German motor is sputtering. Neither Spain nor Italy has much clout. And the Commission is relatively weak. Despite its absence from the euro, a Britain that was seen as constructive could help to set the agenda.

Second, the government will need to work at relationships. The traditional UK Treasury view is that relationships are unnecessary, and that Britain should take a 'transactional' approach to foreign policy, considering each issue separately. This approach has been quite influential in Britain (even though, as prime minister, Gordon Brown succeeded in building good relations with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy). The British are sometimes perceived to advance their short-term interests in an uncompromising manner. Thus they have refused to contribute to the main eurozone bail-out fund – although the fund may be used to the benefit of British banks, and although non-euro members Poland and Sweden have agreed to participate.

The British have seldom been skilled at nurturing long-term relationships in Europe. For example, they like to think the Poles are natural allies; after all, Britain opened its borders to Polish workers in 2004. But in fact Britain never made a sustained effort to follow up that advantage by cultivating Poland. Some Poles, complaining that British diplomacy is all take and no give, note that top people in Berlin and Paris invest more time in building relations with Warsaw. One hears similar tales in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden: they agree with the British on many issues and would like to be their allies – but often find London unresponsive. So Cameron and his ministers should engage in some old-fashioned diplomacy, winning allies and making friends. Sometimes they will need to offer to help other governments with their problems, to ensure that favours are returned.

Encouragingly, the new government seems to be taking both points seriously. Foreign Secretary William Hague says the government will bring ideas to the EU policy agenda. And Cameron has asked Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, a multilingual former MEP, to use his contacts to help build relationships with other governments. But when the first crisis hits UK-EU relations, and tabloid newspapers demand blood, will the government remain charming?

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