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The prime minister of little England*


By indulging hardline Eurosceptics in Brussels and Westminster, David Cameron makes a mockery of his progressive credentials

David Cameron increasingly looks like Britain's prime minister in waiting, but until now he has not set out a credible and coherent foreign policy vision. Like his new economic strategy, Cameron's current position on foreign affairs is fast retreating from his earlier commitment to a radically progressive Conservatism.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Europe. First there is the Conservatives' alliance in the European parliament with dubious, hardline Eurosceptics who have held antisemitic and homophobic views, an ill-judged association that is damaging Britain's standing and alienating other centre-right partners.

Then there is the Tories' threat to renegotiate the Lisbon treaty once it is in force, which is only a matter of time after Ireland's emphatic endorsement last weekend and Poland's ratification on Saturday. (The Czech president's request for an exemption could be agreed at the EU summit on 29-30 October.) A Tory referendum on re-nationalising powers would turn into a vote about Britain's EU membership, causing unprecedented economic uncertainty – the last thing needed in the midst of a stuttering recovery.

Of course Cameron won't repudiate Euroscepticism until the next general election for fear of losing crucial votes to the UK Independence party. But once in office, pragmatism will probably trump electoral calculations. The question is whether Cameron's realism can also prevail over the perennial temptations of populism and ideological posturing.

Worryingly, he has so far failed to outline a positive and genuinely transformational, Conservative vision for the EU.

In his conference speech, he promised to implement a "progressive agenda" that would make the EU more accountable and transparent through decentralisation. But Cameron's proposed repatriation of powers from Brussels to London would concentrate decision-making at the national level, which is at odds with his own promise to deliver a radical redistribution of power to the local level.

Instead of alienating European partners with more Euroscepticism, the Tories should adopt a positive stance and follow their own imperative of localism by arguing in favour of a Europe-wide decentralisation to the lowest possible level, including local government, communities and neighbourhoods.

For example, an incoming Conservative government could reinforce and extend the principle of mutual recognition of products and services to more areas of legislation that govern the operation of the European single market. This, combined with some minimal minimum standards, could limit and roll back excessive harmonisation, a perverse situation whereby the European commission can (and still does) legislate on the shape of tomatoes and the size of bananas.

By arguing for a change in EU law that favours mutual recognition rather than harmonisation, the Tories can help promote greater diversity and fairer (anti-monopoly) competition while also protecting British (and other EU) producers and consumers against a competitive race to the bottom.

In addition to the EU's important well-funded regional policy, Cameron could advocate a new EU local policy that blends shared principles with particular, locally specific practices. That, rather than simply empowering Westminster and Whitehall, would be a truly Conservative vision for Europe.

There is also EU support for modernising the UK's chronically underfunded infrastructure, including a recent £1bn loan for Crossrail from the European Investment Bank. Or the potential of a EU-supported industrial policy for reviving Britain's manufacturing and industrial policy – another urgent task for the next government.

Moreover, a renewed emphasis on localism would help restore a proper European tradition. Indeed, the principle of subsidiarity – devolving power to the most appropriate level – is enshrined in all EU treaties and given more importance in the Lisbon treaty. By appealing to this European tenet, the Tories can challenge the attempted construction of a federal super-state with a positive vision that is in accordance with Europe's founding fathers, not least Winston Churchill.

Retrieving this vision would allow the Tories to repudiate centralised, Franco-German federalism in favour of something like "subsidiary federalism" – a legally guaranteed distribution of powers between the EU and national levels, coupled with a political programme of radical decentralisation to the lowest possible level. This would enable the EU to concentrate on what it does best (including cross-border banking regulations and green policies), while devolving decision-making in other areas to the regional and local level – or, where absolutely necessary, to national governments.

There are many other economic and political reasons for a new Tory approach to Europe. Sticking with vulgar Euroscepticism will boost the SNP's case for Scottish independence, and might spell the end of the United Kingdom. Moreover, the Tories' current EU stance will in time provoke a major rift with continental European partners, depriving Cameron of a unique opportunity to influence Europe in cooperation with his natural, centre-right allies who have a majority across EU institutions and the 27 member states.

Instead of shaping the EU's future under British leadership, Cameron might be remembered as the first British PM to preside over "little England" – not exactly a glorious legacy for a one-nation Tory unionist. For this reason alone, he needs to start developing an alternative Tory vision for Europe.

Adrian Pabst


Adrian Pabst is a lecturer in politics in the University of Kent at Canterbury. Since 1998, he also been a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. He is a frequent visitor to Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia. Currently he is writing The Spectacle of Paradox, a book on market-states, crisis capitalism and the coming ideologies. He is a regular contributor to the international press on geopolitics, political economy, Europe and religion.

* First published by “The Guardian” (12.10.2009) at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/12/cameron-conservatives-european-union-eurosceptic

№10(37), 2009