Abandon ship or keep the faith? Cameron’s EU test

Palace of Westminster

Prime Minister David Cameron is enduring a rocky ride at home and abroad over matters European this week.

On one hand, he has had President Sarkozy of France telling him to keep out of matters that concern only the Euro zone, while at home today Cameron faces the prospect of the biggest ever eurosceptic rebellion among his own MPs.

Today's vote in Parliament - on whether the UK should review its place in the European Union, withdraw completely or continue as a member under current terms - will be viewed by Europe as a test of British commitment to the European cause. Even though the vote will almost certainly end in defeat for the eurosceptics, it will also be a test of Cameron's authority over rebels within his own party. Here, Professor Tim Bale from the University's School of Law, Politics and Sociology, who is an expert on Conservative Party politics, explains what's at stake.

Why is the Conservatives' relationship with the EU so fractious?

The Conservative Party is an unashamedly nationalist party which believes in protecting British sovereignty.  Many Conservatives believe that the EU threatens our right to decide our own destiny. But this is also about economics.  Many Tories think that the whole notion of belonging to a regional bloc is an idea whose time has passed. The European economy, with its low growth, high unemployment and over-regulation is not one the UK should be tying itself to.  We should instead look to develop unfettered free-trade with go-ahead economies such as China and India - and in any case we are going to have to compete with those countries, so should avoid rules and regulations from Brussels which make that more difficult.

Where does Cameron stand on withdrawal from Europe - is this the real acid test for his leadership?

David Cameron calls himself a 'practical Eurosceptic'.  He believes that this country has to avoid surrendering any more sovereignty to Europe but that it is an open question as to how far we should go in re-negotiating our relationship with the EU.  He does not believe that the UK would be better off out of the European Union since it still confers considerable economic and diplomatic advantages on this country - advantages which, he believes, would not be on offer from the kind of relationship, say, non-EU members Norway and Switzerland, have with the EU.  He is insisting his MPs back him on this because it is Conservative Party policy and one of the bases of the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats.  Nor does he want to send a signal to business, or to our allies (including the USA) that withdrawal is a serious possibility.

How is the referendum vote likely to play out, and what would be the consequences for Cameron of a vote for a referendum?

The Commons will overwhelmingly reject the call for a referendum because Labour and the Lib Dems will not support one.  The question is how many Tory MPs rebel on a three-line whip.  Anything over forty will be uncomfortable, but it would make no practical difference.  The main problem is that the only thing most people, who take little interest in such archane matters, will take out of it is that the Conservatives are divided and obsessed with a problem that is nowhere near as important to them as, say, the economy or public services.  That's not a good look.

Just how difficult is the timing of this vote for Cameron, given the intense negotiations taking place in Europe just now?

In one way, it's a distraction he doesn't need and it will make it more difficult to convince other member states of this country's good faith (and long-term commitment) in any negotiations.  On the other, it could just strengthen his hand if he is able to say that he is all that lies between them and one of the most powerful and richest member states not only refusing to play ball, but walking off home with it.

How could Labour capitalise on this vote?

Labour will have to hope that any rebellion on its benches is dwarfed by any Conservative revolt, play down the fact that it is refusing to grant the British public a say on the subject, and play up the divisions on the Tory side to suggest that it's back to the chaos, indecision and obsession which characterised John Major's government of the 1990s.  They will also stress that this shows the Conservative Party is out of touch with what ordinary people are worried about - the economy, stupid!

And what is the Lib Dems' position on EU, post-coalition?

Although there are some Lib Dems at the top of the Party who privately regard their pro-European position as a bit of an albatross around their necks and would like to reposition the party as slightly more sceptical, most Lib Dems genuinely believe in European integration and regard it as a key part of the party's brand.  They have already trashed that brand by compromising in all sorts of other ways - tuition fees being only the most obvious example - and will not want to do it again on this signature issue.  They have been noticeably quiet on this whole issue in the last few days and will probably choose to keep it low key.

Notes for Editors


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Last updated: Monday, 24 October 2011