If the opinion polls are right, Britain’s Conservative Party stands a good chance of returning to power in the spring of 2010, after 13 years in opposition. All over Europe, politicians and officials want to know what kind of EU policies the Conservatives will pursue if they win the next general election. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, gave some indications in a speech on November 4th 2009. Nevertheless continental Europeans still have very little knowledge of the current Conservative Party and its attitudes.
Similarly, many Conservatives are out of touch with how the EU has changed during their long years in opposition. Deprived of ministerial office, senior Conservatives tend to lack the personal contacts with top European politicians that earlier generations of Conservative leaders enjoyed. And their party’s growing euroscepticism has cut them off from mainstream centre-right networks on the continent.
Continental Europeans who recall John Major’s government remember that it contained not only eurosceptics but also heavyweight pro-EU figures like Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd. Since the time of the Major government, however, not only the Conservative Party but also the country at large have become much more eurosceptic.
Of all the 27 EU member-states, Britain is the most eurosceptic. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, only 32 per cent of Britons think their country has benefited from the EU. The next lowest scores are in Hungary (34 per cent) and Latvia (38 per cent), while the average across the EU is 56 per cent. Asked if the EU is a good thing, only 28 per cent of Britons say it is, compared with 53 per cent in the EU as a whole.
In the June 2009 European elections, the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is committed to leaving the EU, came second, with 17 per cent of the vote, ahead of Labour on 15 per cent (with the far-right British National Party on 6 per cent). This is not the place for an analysis of why Britain is so eurosceptic, but British euroscepticism seems to be a growing force Continental Europeans who fear that a Conservative government will disrupt the EU have been partially reassured by the relatively emollient tone of Cameron’s November 4th speech.
But they need to be aware of the strong pressures that could push a Prime Minister Cameron to take a hard line on Europe. Large sections of the press and his own party want Britain to loosen its ties to Europe – or even leave the EU altogether.
Indeed, the old division in the Conservative Party between pro- and anti-EU factions has largely disappeared. Most Conservatives are eurosceptic to a greater or lesser degree (Ken Clarke’s position in the shadow cabinet is an anomaly). According to a survey of 144 Conservative prospective parliamentary candidates carried out in July 2009 by Conservative Home, a website, 10 per cent would like to keep Britain’s relationship with the EU the way it is, 47 per cent would repatriate powers to Britain in some areas, 38 per cent want a ‘fundamental renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership, and 5 per cent would withdraw from the EU.
Other EU governments, and pro-Europeans of all parties in Britain, need to understand that Cameron is, within his own party, a force for moderation. Though a eurosceptic of sorts, he is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue and he sees that the British national interest requires constructive engagement with EU partners. Cameron needs to be supported against those who wish to provoke a crisis in Britain’s relations with the EU.
Many Conservatives do not know how much the EU has changed since the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In those days, France and Germany could to a large extent set the EU’s agenda. Britain had to fight hard to thwart anti-Americanism within the EU. The EU story was largely about the creation of the euro and whether Britain should join it, rows over social policy, and federalist pressure for stronger institutions.
But the enlargement of the EU – to Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995, and then to 12 Central, Eastern and Southern European states in 2004-07 – has dramatically changed its character. English is the dominant language. And though France and Germany remain influential, no two countries can on their own set the agenda in a wider EU of 27 members. Under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, France and Germany are much more Atlanticist than they were, as is the Union as a whole.
The question of Britain’s membership of the euro has been resolved for the foreseeable future : it is not going to join. There is no significant EU legislation on social policy in the pipeline, and with the centre-right in power in most member-states, that is not going to change. The ratification of the Lisbon treaty means that the EU will stop talking about new treaties and focus less on institutional questions. Federalism is a spent force, confined to the political elites of Belgium and Luxembourg, a few German and Italian politicians, and some senior figures in the EU institutions. Most governments take a no-nonsense, pragmatic attitude to the EU, seeing it as a vehicle through which they can pursue national interests. In that they are not so different from Britain’s Conservatives.
Lire l’intégralité de l’article sur le site du Centre for European Reform :