Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cameron's relatively pro-European stance to be cautiously welcomed, but his influence remains limited in nature

One of the striking aspects of David Cameron's tenure as Prime Minister so far is his about turn on the European Union.

Right from the beginning when bidding to become his party's leader in 2005 he was forced to make Eurosceptic noises and a rash promise to withdraw his MEPs from the mainstream centre-right group of European political parties. Without the votes of the Eurosceptic fringe of his party he never would have been elected as Tory leader in the first place.

However, I have been surprised to see that his tough rhetoric in opposition has melted away.

Firstly, his pledges to renegotiate the EU's vital and important social legislation have been conveniently forgotten about.

Secondly, despite his strong rhetoric, presumably for the benefit of his own back-benchers and the Eurosceptic press, he has agreed to a minimum 2.9% increase in the EU budget for next year.

Thirdly, he has enthusiastically championed close defence and military cooperation with our closest EU partners, one of the most sensitive areas of sovereignty for many Tories.

Indeed, one of his first 'European' decisions as Prime Minister was to appoint the moderate David Lidington as his Europe Minister. In my meeting with Mr Lidington soon after his appointment it appeared to me that this was a choice highly influenced by the pro-European Nick Clegg.

Nevertheless, despite the relatively positive approach, it remains to be seen how significant this can be. The problem for David Cameron, and indeed any Conservative Prime Minister is that outside the main centre-right EPP group, his influence and that of his MEPs is somewhat neutered. As a co-legislator, the European Parliament can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant and is now a mature arm of the EU's legislative process. Legislation here is adopted on a consensus basis with deals often hammered out between the EPP and my own group, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats. His MEPs, on the outside of this process, are sadly excluded from such important negotiations. Likewise, despite his attempts in recent weeks to improve relationships with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the pre-summit meetings of EPP centre-right prime ministers excludes David Cameron so despite his shouting to the media, his real influence is also limited and this can be in nobody's interest, least of all Britain's.

So perhaps the real question which remains for David Cameron is this: Will he swallow his pride, confront the hard-right Europhobes in his party and apply for readmission to the mainstream EPP or will he choose to keep both himself and his party in the political wilderness?

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