A European tale of Cameron’s friends: win some, lose some…
The Sun says that David Cameron has a new best friend in Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who it says will join his call for powers to be repatriated from the EU to national goverments when he gives his much trailled big speech on Europe, perhaps later this month (and perhaps in the Netherlands). But as Cameron picks up one supporter, he appears to be losing them faster in slightly more significant countries. Like Germany and the USA. And, it seems, even in British business.
He may not even have the Dutch on board, according to the Mail Online. “Stephan Schrover, official spokesman for Mr Rutte, told MailOnline that far from being signed up to Mr Cameron’s vision for Europe ‘we not aware of information about it’.”
Cameron is calling for the return of powers from Brussels (especially over social measures like working time) so that he can at the same time promise an in-out referendum and win it on the basis that he has changed the EU into something the British public will vote for. His strategy is based on the assumption that by talking tough over Europe, he can appear Eurosceptic enough to win over voters deserting the Tories for UKIP and Tory rebels, win the next General Election, and still stay in a European Union reduced to an unrestricted (you know, by things like labour rights) free trade zone.
Until recently, British business was, as a whole, studiedly quiet on the strategy, because they believed that Cameron would deliver continued EU membership, perhaps at the same time handing them lower labour standards as a bonus. And if he managed that, business interests have reasoned, why enrage the Europhobic print media and Eurosceptic consumers by going out on a limb for staying in?
Labour has often appeared over the last two decades worried enough that the Tories were right about popular opinion to follow and therefore reinforce Tory concessions over British membership – especially over referendum promises (first on the Euro, then on treaty change, and maybe next even on membership – although that does seem to be where Ed Miliband is beginning to draw a line.) Even the Liberal Democrats, once the most openly Europhile of the main parties, have cooled to the EU in recent years, although, again, Nick Clegg seems to have found the latest political kite-flying too much to bear.
Other major European governments – at least, the ones without bigger problems of their own, which these days is many of them – have generally adopted the same line as business. They have appeared confident that Britain will stay in, possibly with a face-saving, but unimportant, deal here and there. It’s not as if they were going to die in a ditch to defend workers’ rights, when many of them were being eroded anyway. The US has been ever so diplomatic about not interfering, while clearly preferring UK membership of the EU.
This week, in an answer to what seems to have been a planted question at the end of a boring press briefing, an Obama-appointed US diplomat was anything but. Although the message was the same (basically, “stay in the EU, limey”) the tone and timing were direct and pointed. The message reported in the UK media was very clear indeed – it was a direct attack on Cameron’s strategy.
Yesterday, Angela Merkel was reported to be similarly blunt about Cameron’s negotiating ploy. Taking his main leverage – a revised EU treaty over which the UK would have a veto – off the table, she reiterated what other European leaders have been saying with increasing vehemence. Britain will not be able to cherry pick key elements of the social market (defined as the free trade zone plus social measures.)
Both Obama and Merkel may feel emboldened – the first by his re-election, the second by her bouyant poll ratings ahead of this autumn’s poll. But there’s also a feeling that matters are coming to a head. That seems to be the case for employers too. Although they clearly welcomed the idea the further reduction of workers’ rights that is the bait Cameron is offering them, the leading business figures who wrote to the Financial Times (£) this week were unmistakeably declaring war. A similar line has been taken by prominent pro-Europe grandees from the Lords: Brittan, Heseltine, Mandelson and Kerr (you may not know the last one, but he’s in some ways the most authoritative, as the former immensely respected civil servant who negotiated the last European Treaty but one.)
Senior business people I speak to (even the ones slightly nervous about being seen talking to a trade unionist!) seem to have decided that Cameron may be going too close to the edge in his (and especially the increasingly loathed and disrespected Chancellor Osborne’s) brinkmanship. They don’t think his strategy will deliver the repatriation he’s calling for and they worry (I mean, really worry) that he will then put staying in Downing Street by appeasing the Eurosceptics over staying in Europe. Or just find himself in a position where no amount of smooth talking will prevent the cliff edge crumbling under his feet. So they are finally beginning to break their vows of silence and put their feet down.
While it is fun watching previously pro-American Eurosceptics suddenly become US-phobes as well, this has huge implications for trade unionists. The debate at last year’s Congress saw a pretty-much unanimous view on Europe. We don’t like the way the EU is heading over austerity and union rights. But we don’t think leaving the EU will solve those problems or be good for jobs and workers’ rights. Cameron’s objective – a non-social free trade zone – would be anathema to most British unions. Unions across Europe share that view, although even in Greece, despite how far austerity and neoliberalism has gone, it’s clear that most unions and progressive parties want to stay in the EU.
The ETUC has been clear about opposing the new ‘fiscal compact’ that Merkel wanted to write into a revised EU Treaty (and which is being implemented despite that revision now being postponed). But we believe we can secure a change of course, a better Europe, without walking out. That seems to be emerging as a consensus between business, unions and politicians, even if we so far disagree on what ‘better’ means.