United Kingdom's flag – Credit © European Union, 2011
On September 12th, a group of up to 120 Conservative Members of Parliament in Britain, met in the Thatcher Room at the House of Commons, in order to debate a new bloc within the party, aiming for just this, pulling away from the supposed ’EU super-state’.
The bloc is also aiming to extend the hand of friendship to any of the other 650 British MPs who may be interested, including significant factions of the Labour party, and perhaps even a few Liberal Democrats (a majority Europhile party).
Several of these Conservative and Labour MPs have also signed a petition calling for a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU itself. As the petition has reached 100,000 signatures, it has been passed to the government for debate.
If we factor in that Conservative MPs have also called for parliament to be given power of veto over the appointment of British judges to the European Court of Justice, and former Chancellor Lord Lawson’s rhetoric, calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to tear up the Lisbon Treaty, it creates a worrying picture.
But is this the sign that Europe will soon see Britain exiting the European Union? I think not.... but it will be a close thing.
The 2010 General Election in the UK saw a massive shift in British politics. With our first coalition government since 1945, we see the Eurosceptic Conservatives (Tories) being propped up by the Europhile Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems). 306 Tories and 57 LibDems form a coalition which needs at least 326 for a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons on a vote. This is a new dynamic for British politics, and there is tension in this unfamiliar ground.
The other major shift in recent years is that British MPs have become decidedly more Eurosceptic since the election. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain similar to before, up to half of the 148 freshly-elected Conservative MPs may be willing to vote in favour of fully leaving the EU, and far more would be willing to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership. A new wave of Euroscepticism is breaking on the White Cliffs of Dover...
Three of these new Conservative MPs, George Eustice, Chris Heaton-Harris and Andrea Leadsom, asked other Conservative MPs interested in developing “an informal group of like-minded MPs who could come together to talk, receive regular quality topical briefings, exchange ideas and, indeed, provide support and helpful advice to the government” with the “political objective...to reverse the process of ever-closer union” to gather in the Thatcher Room at the House of Commons on the 12th of September
You may think that this is a tragedy for Europhiles in Britain. A new Eurosceptic alliance of MPs, dedicated to driving the government towards rolling back EU cooperation, and perhaps even withdrawing – the final threat. All this, despite Prime Minister and Conservative party leader,David Cameron, showing unwillingness to hold an in/out referendum on EU membership for Britain.
However, the three MPs who wrote the initial letter are unlikely candidates to rebel against the party line in such a blatant manner.
Searching their records on TheyWorkForYou.com (an online record of voting of all MPs in Britain) shows that this is true. This complicates the situation... they have voted in the past in favour of European bills, such as the one establishing the European External Action Service, as long as it was the government line. I find that there is only one reason that these three MPs may form such a bloc – the government wants them too...
Yes, this new group may very well be a plot to avoid confrontation over Europe. Bear with me.
Most Tories are sceptical of the Franco-German alliance. But Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague know that since the Eurozone won’t give in to abandoning the currency, the only option is further fiscal integration, in a last-ditch attempt to make it work.
Most Tories would oppose this, as would many Labour MPs and even some LibDems. It may incense them enough to encourage them to call for an in/out referendum on EU membership. So, the promise of repatriation of powers from Brussels back to London is being dangled like a prize, if only they cooperate on the Euro...
Other Tories would support his. Lord Heseltine said that the UK must make the union “work” in British interests. He claims that “in what is an extremely fragile world situation, if you want to light the tinder box, just start saying Britain is going to start renegotiating its position in Europe. That is just about the last thing that anybody wants.” Some Tories acknowledge that the European Union, the Franco-German axis, and the world, is so fragile, rebellious Tory backbenchers may very well bring the whole house of cards crashing down.
It also helps life within the coalition, if we want to be even more cynical. The Liberal Democrats have already suffered massive humiliation – they were forced to vote in higher student fees for university students (c.£9000/10200 Euros per year of study... yes, you heard right), and have lost a referendum on changing Britain’s voting system from First Past the Post to a more proportional Alternative Vote system. There is tension between them and the Tories on taxation levels, healthcare and the last government’s banning of fox-hunting. Throwing a referendum on Europe into the mix could tear the government apart, leaving it lame, or even forcing an election. One that the Europhile Liberal Democrats would suffer in.
For these two reasons, it is easier for the Tories to have a group of MPs calling for renegotiation of EU membership than calling for withdrawal. So, they’ve created it first, under their guidance, with aims that they’re promising anyway. The group was greenlit by William Hague, and was attended by Conservative Whips (members of the party who ensure all members vote how the leadership desires). It seems plausible when the group explicitly denied that withdrawal was their aim.
It recalls John Major’s government following the Maastricht Treaty – he faced a rebellion on the right of his party. In a leaked recording he referenced Lyndon Johnson, the American President, talking about J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, - “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in”. It was better for him to keep prominent Eurosceptics in his cabinet, than to fire them and risk them forming a group to challenge his leadership.
Thus, it could very well be that the emergence of this new group is an internal move, one more concerned with quelling domestic disputes, one attempting to come to some level of harmony within the EU, instead of risking the likely withdrawal a referendum would force.
This does not mean that Europhiles, in Britain and elsewhere, should be complacent. The fact that this group may be a Conservative HQ attempt to avoid open confrontation over Europe, does not mean that the issue will not trigger conflict, and it still shows that Euroscepticism is rampant in Britain. The European Union Bill, which forces a referendum on almost ANY transfer of powers and competencies to Europe; the Conservatives’ creation of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament (a throwback to the days of the European Democrats, pre EPP-ED); recent rhetoric over withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights in order to develop a British version, all show that this government is taking steps further and further from a position of cooperation with its European partners...and more worryingly, it receives broad support from the British public. We must continue to do our best to show that Britain benefits from EU membership, that it is a stronger, wealthier and more Great Britain when cooperating with Europe than without Europe, that it is a nation that warrants and deserves a place at the heart of European politics and that departure is not a sensible option. We must show that subsidiarity trumps ever-closer union. We must show the advantages of European Union membership. We must fight the lies that surround the EU.
We have time. The Tories will likely have to wait until 2013, until France and Germany have had their elections, and more serious discussions on the Eurozone are taking place. The aim is to kick the Eurozone when its down. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had warned Cameron that the crisis in the Eurozone is no time to demand Britain’s “pound of flesh”. We may see either the disintegration of the Eurozone, of the European Union, or of stable British government.
On the Eurosceptic fringe of the European continent, the fight to raise awareness of the benefits of EU membership is always going to be hard. While it’s doubtful that an in/our referendum will occur in Britain, the fact that some recent polls show that 52% would vote to leave, as opposed to a mere 30% voting should rightly terrify Europhiles. The fight is long, the fight is difficult, but the fight must be fought.