Cameron's speech could leave Tories more deeply split
‘The worst-case scenario for the US is that the UK leaves the EU and Scotland leaves the UK.”
So said the academic Charles Kupchan, former director of European affairs at the National Security Council in Washington this week.
He echoed a warning by Philip Gordon, US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, in London that the UK would lose US as well as European influence if it were to exit the EU.
The US wants to see a more unified EU concentrating on shared transatlantic interests in which it relies on the UK as its closest ally. Similar sentiments were expressed by German and Finnish ministers and by leading EU officials.
In Dublin the opening of Ireland’s six-month EU presidency saw the issue put centre stage in briefings for the visiting Brussels press corps by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore.
A British exit would be “disastrous for our country”, said Kenny. Gilmore said bluntly: “We are either a union or we are not. This is not going to work if you have 27 or 28 categories of membership. The EU is not an a la carte menu.”
That rules out Irish support for a bilateral British renegotiation of membership or repatriation of competences, to be sought in a forthcoming speech by British prime minister David Cameron.
Gilmore added: “Britain and Ireland joined in 1973 on the same day. As a country we have a very strong interest in Britain… being a fully engaged member of the EU. In so far as we can influence we will be encouraging Britain’s continued membership of the EU.”
The build-up of external criticism impressed the British media and infuriated Eurosceptic MPs and bloggers. It may help develop a more balanced internal debate on these issues in Britain, as called for too this week by several leading business voices and by a Guardian editorial. They, like the Irish, American, German and Finnish observers, believe Cameron is boxing himself into an impossible position by pursuing a referendum strategy based on renegotiating terms of membership.
As Mark Hennessy put it yesterday: “Cameron cannot deliver what he demands, unless extraordinary events take place in Brussels that force the EU-26 to kowtow to London. Even if he does, it will not be enough. Either way, he has put himself into an impossible bind.”
Hennessy draws on a revealing article by James Forsyth in the Spectator to make his case that this is a very large political accident waiting to happen.
The unintended consequence of willing victory in a referendum on repatriation is more likely to be defeat of a package unacceptable to the growing constituency linking Euroscepticism to English nationalism.
Forsyth argues that “Cameron’s speech may end up leaving his party more deeply split than at any time since the repeal of the Corn Laws. He might have to accept that the only way he can reconcile the Conservatives to EU membership is by threatening to leave.”
A lot depends on how much the Germans (and other liberal states like Ireland and Finland) would be willing to concede, following Angela Merkel’s decision that she wants the UK to stay an EU member. Gilmore is rightly worried about this in the inevitable negotiations to come on relations between the deepening euro zone, the “pre-ins” and the outs.
Too kowtowing an EU stance with an isolated Britain would cut across Irish and other national interests in what should be a multilateral not a bilateral exercise.
There is a limit to what can be conceded to only one member state, irrespective of whether this involves another treaty.
And if a UK exit would be disastrous for Ireland, what of the other leg of Kupchan’s worst-case scenario, Scotland leaving the UK?
That prospect is forcing a hard rethink of Irish policy. An independent Scotland would be an economic competitor, not least on corporate tax (as the UK increasingly is).
It could hasten Irish reunification, which this State could not afford. And if it prompted a “Brexit” it would weaken a liberal EU, to which Ireland is deeply committed. Watch this space ...
Intriguingly Forsyth invokes another historical miscalculation that this emergent one may mirror: “Henry VIII never intended to break with Rome and quit the jurisdiction of that other European project, the Roman Catholic Church. He assumed that it would accommodate his needs rather than lose so powerful a realm. Rome’s intransigence left him with no option but to leave. Cameron might find himself in a similar position.”