Conservative policy on Europe becomes clearer

David Cameron

For some time now, the Conservative policy on the Lisbon treaty is to hold a referendum on it if it is yet to come into force, but if it has come into force by the time they come into power, they have said merely that they “won’t let matters rest”. Now we know more about what that means.

To convene an intergovernmental conference to revise the treaties requires a majority vote in the European Council: which 13 other countries want to restart all the agony and turmoil that has been Europe’s institutional lot for the last 9 years?

In a radio interview yesterday, David Cameron said that:

“There’s an important negotiation coming up on the future funding of the EU and I don’t want to see us increasing the funding at all, but it gives us enormous leverage in terms of making sure we get a good deal for Britain.”

So, that’s his route to a new negotiation. The budget has to be agreed unanimously, and Britain could simply refuse to agree a new budget until its demands on the institutions are met. Refusal to pass a budget was the strategy followed by Newt Gingrich after his mid-term election victory in 1994: the US government ground to a halt for a while as a result. The reaction of the voters to this stunt was negative, and the Republicans were damaged as a result.

John Major’s beef war also comes to mind. To get a change in EU policy on the export of British beef, introduced as a reaction to the emergence of BSE, John Major’s government set about vetoing or opposing every EU policy wherever it could. The result was humiliation for Britain. Working through the institutions got the changes Britain wanted, whereas working outside them simply failed.

Adopting a collision course with the rest of EU, tying a new round of institutional reform to the budget debate, doesn’t look likely to succeed. And even if it does, what does it do to Britain’s interests?

After all, Britain will remain in the EU – David Cameron is very clear on that – and has a finite amount of political capital. To spend it on reopening the institutional issue means that less can be deployed in the debate about the budget. Britain’s interests in the way in which the EU raises money and spends it will be less well-argued because of the Tories’ institutional diversions. Foreseeably, Britain will become less influential in Europe. Perhaps that is what they really intend.

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