Comment: Cameron’s EU alliance is about to crumble

By Edward McMillan-Scott

Leading members of the Conservative Party have been openly flirting with EU exit for some time, not least the likes of Michael Gove, Grant Schapps and Owen Paterson.

However, the last few days have marked a momentous step in the party’s steady embrace of euroscepticism. First David Cameron admitted he would not “sit on the fence” in a referendum if his plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU failed, implying that he could campaign for EU exit. He then stated that he sees no reason why he should resign as Prime Minister if Britain did vote to leave the EU, suggesting that he would not view such an outcome as disastrous or as a personal defeat.

Cameron’s increasingly ambiguous stance shows just how divided the Conservative Party now finds itself over Europe. So far his strategy has been to avoid taking a firm and coherent position on whether Britain should be In or Out by abdicating responsibility to the public in a future referendum, in what has become the central plank of the Conservative’s European election campaign.

But by trying to straddle the widening gulf between the Outers and the diminishing band of pro-European Tories, Cameron appeases both sides but satisfies neither. At some point, the gap will become too wide to bridge; Cameron will have to either pick a side or fall into the abyss. Just like Labour and the SDP in the 1980s, the Conservative party could risk finding itself split in two by an ideological rift and a weak leader.

Crucially, in failing to confront his eurosceptic opponents from the beginning, Cameron may well have sown the seeds of his own fate. In particular, his choice in 2009 to leave the largest group in the European Parliament, the centre-right Christian Democrat/Conservative EPP, is set to come back to haunt him.

The formation of the new fringe ECR group in 2010, memorably described by Nick Clegg as “a bunch of homophobes, anti-Semites and climate-change deniers,” isolated the Conservatives and dealt a major blow to Britain’s influence in Europe.

Now the group faces the possibility of imminent collapse after the European elections, as a number of its member parties are set to either leave the group or fail to be re-elected.

It was the full nature of this new group, announced after the last European elections in 2009, which led to my protest and eventually leaving the Tories (I had been Leader of their MEPs 1997-2001) and, as a lifelong pro-European, joining the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

The Tories will either become non-attached MEPs, an ineffectual rump with zero influence, or they will have to cobble together an alliance with new eurosceptic parties such as the eurosceptic German AfD party, a move which would deeply sour relations with Ms Merkel.

Neither option would be good news for Cameron’s plan for renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU, which will require the involvement and support of both the European Parliament and other EU governments.

David Cameron’s claim to be acting in the British interest is therefore plainly risible. From the beginning, his approach to Europe has been entirely dictated by internal party management. That explains why he has repeatedly undermined Britain’s influence in Europe at a time when he needs it most.

He now faces the impossible task of delivering changes in Europe that will be acceptable to both his eurosceptic backbenchers and European allies.

Liberal Democrats have taken a clear stance, that being part of the EU is vital for Britain’s trade, security and influence in the world. We know that delivering meaningful reform means being outward-looking and building alliances across Europe, not isolating ourselves and making impossible demands.

And when the time for an In Out referendum comes, which under Liberal Democrat policy will happen next time there is a significant transfer of powers the EU, we will be united around a clear message as the Party of In. That is because our approach to Europe is not about what we think is best for our party, but what we know is best for our country.

Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire & Humber, Liberal Democrat) is Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy & Human Rights.

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