Once again, Conservatives put party before country
INSIDE POLITICS:David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU in 2017, if he wins the next election, has caused more puzzlement than outrage among leaders of the other member states. The generally pro-EU tone of the speech was at odds with the conclusion that Britain will leave if it doesn’t get what it wants, while the lengthy five-year time frame for the process raises all sorts of questions about his motives.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameron is engaged in a cynical political ploy to try to salvage victory at the next British election by trumping Ukip and wrong-footing the Labour Party into an unpopular stance on Europe.
The potentially damaging consequences for the British economy from five years of uncertainty have taken second place to political expediency, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Conservative Party has put party before country.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded calmly, saying that much of what the British prime minister apparently wants could be agreed without a new EU treaty. He also noted wryly that “five years is an eternity in politics”. Not everybody took it as serenely. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Britain could not expect Europe to be an “a la carte” menu, or expect to change the rules of membership just for itself.
“Imagine we are a football club. You join the football club, but once you are in, you cannot say ‘Let’s play rugby’,” he said on French radio.
In Dublin yesterday Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones blamed “corrosive English nationalism” for driving the debate on Britain’s future relationship with the EU and asked why it was taking five years to resolve the question.
Five years of uncertainty
While Cameron’s approach may buy him time politically, the five years of uncertainty he has created can’t be good for the British economy. The former Labour minister and EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson called the speech “schizophrenic” and said Europe would not respond positively to being treated as a “cafeteria service where you bring your own tray and leave with what you want”.
Mandelson’s reaction may have had something to do with the fact that Cameron’s speech appeared primarily designed to create problems for Labour, which is now leading in the opinion polls.
The prime minister was clearly trying both to protect himself from Ukip and the right wing of his own party as well as putting Labour leader Ed Miliband in a bit of a spot. Anti-EU hysteria in England, promoted and fanned by the repulsive British media, is a potent force but Cameron has actually given it respectability by his decision.
To his credit, Miliband has so far kept his nerve and not allowed himself to be bullied into accepting the need for a referendum on Cameron’s terms. He will find it hard to stick to that line, however, when the accusations of not wanting to listen to the democratic will of the people are thrown at him.