DAVID Cameron promised his ravenous right-wing pack of euro-haters that he would fight “like a British bulldog” — but he ended up being savaged by a French poodle.
The poodle in question was, of course, Nicolas Sarkozy — Angela Merkel’s then pet poodle — and Cameron yelped his way out of Brussels after receiving a mauling at the December summit that hammered out the fiscal compact treaty.
Cameron returned to the Commons to be cheered to the rafters by Tories — and boycotted by his coalition partner and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who refused to attend parliament as his party was so angry at Britain being shut out of the deal.
While Tories delighted that the UK had effectively derailed itself from the European project of ever closer union and created a two-tier Europe, critics described it as one of the greatest mistakes in British peacetime foreign policy for 200 years — leaving the country isolated and without any influence over key decisions made by the rest of the EU and then imposed on Westminster.
Cameron played an already weak hand exceptionally badly at the high-stakes summit and when the talks finally ended as dawn approached, the sun was setting on Britain’s power in the EU — which was also terrible news for Ireland as Dublin had always looked to London for protection on common objectives such as fighting tax harmonisation.
British arrogance in Europe has long been exemplified by the infamous Daily Express headline from the 1950s: “Fog In The Channel — Continent Cut Off”. The conservative Spanish newspaper El Pais delighted in summing up the new post-summit status quo with: “Storm in the English channel, Britain isolated”.
Badly prepared for the summit and determined to save the Conservative Party’s key donors in London’s financial sector from the threat of much stronger regulation from Brussels and a transaction tax, Cameron also knew his leadership would be under direct challenge if he were seen to go soft on Europe.
Britain did remarkably little ground work in the run-up to the summit, and the French and Germans were in no mood for compromise on opt-outs for the City of London; indeed some in Brussels believe Cameron walked into a trap laid by Sarkozy to force the troublesome British out of future decision-making completely.
Cameron refused to budge on regulation and so a 27-member deal was impossible, hence we have an intergovernmental treaty between the other 26. Indeed, it is highly likely Ireland would have avoided a referendum completely if Britain had signed up as it would have been considered an extension of the previous Lisbon settlement, with no need for a fresh constitutional vote.
As one critic put it: “There are 240,000 square miles in Britain and David Cameron has sacrificed 239,999 of them for the sake of the square mile of the City of London.”
But Cameron had other issues at play as his grip on power is much weaker than is realised on this side of the Irish Sea.
The Tory right never trusted his “hug a hoodie” brand of touchy-feely social conservatism, but was prepared to pretend to go along with it as long as it delivered the electoral goodies.
Despite the greatest economic disaster for 80 years, a prime minister in the shape of Gordon Brown who seemed to have a political deathwish, and the most fawning press coverage received by any Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher in her pomp, Cameron fell 20 seats short of a majority and was forced to lead Britain’s first peacetime coalition since the last depression of 1931.
The right wing is now biding its time to cut him off at the knees and take the party back to hardline politics.
Cameron was caught in a pincer movement in the run-up to the summit when Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson broke cover and demanded that Cameron use the summit to repatriate powers from Brussels and hold a referendum on the European question, as London mayor Boris Johnson — now the favourite to succeed Cameron — shored-up his right-wing credentials and went in hard to protect his buddies in the square mile (ironically, the only part of the British capital he doesn’t control).
So Cameron was in no position to compromise over the treaty even if he wanted to, especially not the one Berlin and Paris imposed with its quasi-automatic penalties for fiscal wrongdoers, intrusive controls on national budgets by EU bodies, and structural changes to copper-bottom the eurozone as a much more powerful entity in EU decision-taking.
The Tory right is determined to force a definitive break with the EU and managed to get the coalition to pass laws requiring a referendum to allow the transfer of any significant powers to Brussels. One leading member of the No Turning Back group of Conservative MPs declared as the summit approached: “We are on manoeuvres.”
The pressure on Cameron not to cut a deal was immense, and his position has now been made far weaker by a slump in the polls and disastrous local election results earlier this month.
The only success in the Tory gloom was Johnson holding London — but therein lies the seeds of Cameron’s own destruction as Boris has proved he is a winner in the most trying of times (and handily, he has a brother in parliament who could stand down to create a byelection should the mayor decide on a fast-track return to Westminster to topple the prime minister).
But Europe is now in play across the political divide, with Labour leader Ed Miliband openly toying with the idea of stealing Tory thunder by offering the British public an in-out EU referendum at the next election.
The Tory right would dearly love such a vote now and polls show that a clear majority — fanned by a deeply europhobic press — want withdrawal.
The reality would be some sort of official two-tier Europe with Britain remaining in the trading bloc, but not the political or social structures — which again leaves Ireland without its key ally and major economic partner at the top table.
Clegg’s boycott of the Commons for Cameron’s post-summit statement was as humiliating as it was absurd as he had done a complete somersault from backing the prime minister on his failure to sign the treaty just three days earlier.
Such shabby posturing has helped the Liberal Democrats slump behind UKIP in some polls — again reinforcing the strong mood in Britain to withdrawal from Europe.
It now looks like either by accident or design, Cameron’s diplomatic failure in Brussels last December has set in train Britain’s eventual exit from the EU as we know it.
And his decision delivered Ireland with the only popular vote in Europe on the treaty — ironically, the hard left and Sinn Féin have the British bulldog to thank for letting them get their say.
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