David Cameron raises the union jack for Britain
It could so easily have been the white flag. David Cameron has most certainly confounded his critics on the Right, at least temporarily. Finding himself caught between the ‘Merkozy’ federalist steamroller and the interests of Britain, he chose the latter. I suspect that he found saying ‘Non’ to what had hitherto seemed inevitable rather liberating, if not exhilarating.
Cameron has certainly appeared hamstrung at times by the Europhile Liberal Democrats. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ was Nick Clegg’s veiled threat to Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers today but, for once, this decision firmly puts him in his place as the impotent junior coalition partner.
Likewise, with European elections in 18 month’s time, he might have shot UKIP’s fox. Nigel Farage argues that, had David Cameron gone further and threatened to leave the EU altogether, he might have secured the protocol protecting the City of London from new EU regulation that he sought, enabling him to sign up to the treaty changes sought by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet surely Farage’s response would then have been that Cameron had surrendered to them? The nuclear option of divorce from the EU is surely best left as a threat – for now.
Labour, for their part, have been wrong-footed by this move. In his most recent joust with at Prime Minister’s Questions, Ed Milliband asked David Cameron which powers he intended to repatriate and got a very incoherent answer. Today, however, he was reduced to observing that David Cameron had ‘spectacularly mismanaged’ our relationship with the EU, waffling rather ineffectually about other countries’ ‘bafflement and anger’.
Is this a ‘game-changing moment’? It depends on whether David Cameron capitalises on the momentum that his decision has created. His immediate instinct might well be to downplay the significance of his veto to mollify the Lib Dems his European partners. That would be a mistake: with their poll ratings testing new lows, the former have nowhere to go in electoral terms. Instead, he should be bold and set out a manfesto that is the international equivalent of the Big Society: cooperation, networks and localism rather than bureaucratic oligarchy.
In the medium term, he should secure the repatriation of substantive powers from the EU – over employment rights, energy policy, agriculture, fisheries and more – and then put the result to a referendum that we have so long been denied. Acquis communautaire might a principle beloved of the European Commission but national self-determination is a deeper and even stronger impulse.
By seeking to impose treaty change by fiat – literally, ‘let it be so’ – Merkel and Sarkozy have overplayed their hand. Today’s summitry has done nothing directly to address economic problems in the Eurozone and imposing direct control from Brussels over national budgets will surely have estranged governments – no longer elected in the case of Greece and Italy – even further from their electorates.
Last night, I was preparing to argue that David Cameron was about to be hoist by his own pétard. Instead, he might just have holed the EU frigate below the waterline.