Conservative Realpolitik After Lisbon

With the final ratification of the Lisbon Treaty the British Conservatives have set out the policy which an incoming Conservative government would apply towards the European Union. There is to be no referendum, but a series of legislative measures to limit the extent of EU jurisdiction, and negotiations to take employment and social policy law back into national hands.

Political expediency – or perhaps we should say realpolitik –  has been the hallmark of Conservative policy on Europe since David Cameron became leader of the Tory party in 2005. His overriding priority has been to hold his party together at a time when it is adopting domestic policies which belong to the centre ground of British politics, whether on public services, climate change, poverty, equality or infrastructure spending – respectable policies for any European centre-right party.

An aggressive stance on Europe has given satisfaction to those eurosceptic sections of the party which might otherwise have caused real trouble over Cameron’s leftwards policy shift on domestic issues. What’s more, the refusal of Blair, then Brown, to hold a referendum despite earlier promises has been a mighty stick to beat the Labour Government.

Cameron’s policy has also comforted those sections of the British press which have consistently attacked British membership of the EU.

Ratification of the treaty has obliged Cameron to find a formula for future Conservative policy consistent with past commitments, tough enough to keep the eurosceptics on board,  but not giving too many hostages to fortune for any incoming Conservative government.

There is no point in being too negative about Cameron’s post-ratification approach (although the scathing comments of France’s Europe minister Pierre Lellouche might be quite helpful in suggesting to the sceptics that battle will be joined!).

Party unity is as vital as ever for the Conservatives. A general election must be held by the end of June 2010 and the opinion polls currently promise a reasonable Conservative majority, provided the party can remain united. The great fear is that smaller parties will top-slice the Tory vote, giving success to avowedly anti-European parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or the British National Party (BNP). This could mean a smaller majority, and even a hung Parliament, which would certainly please the Liberal Democrats and the minority parties if it gave them the balance of power.

A thin majority was the nightmare of former Conservative leader John Major in the 1990s and even drove him to resignation and re-election to resist the eurosceptic wing of his own party. Cameron wants no repeat of that.

So how damaging would Cameron’s new policy be for relations between a Conservative government and its partners in the European Union? There is a commitment to hold a referendum on any major new treaty, which mirrors Irish legislation, and also before any adoption of the euro. A law is promised to assert UK sovereignty, but this would not compromise the supremacy of European law and parallels existing powers of the German constitutional court. The commitment to “repatriate” employment law looks the most difficult part of Cameron’s package: perhaps surprisingly British employers’ organisations have greeted this with no great show of enthusiasm.

Withdrawal of the Conservative MEPs from the EPP is the one decision which has already caused major damage to Cameron’s future relations with other European leaders. This will require a major repair operation if a Tory government is to achieve its aims in Europe.

Meanwhile European diplomatic channels are humming as the candidates for President of the Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs are analysed and assessed. It’s getting close to decision time, and it looks as if Blair’s name for president has faded away.

At the same time the British foreign secretary David Miliband is still getting strong support for the High Representative role, not least from the European Commission, which sees him as the ideal person to set up and run the European External Action Service which I discussed in my last blog.  Miliband is also the candidate of the European Parliament’s socialist group. Miliband himself says that he is not taking the job, but we’ll see. He is only one of several potential successors to Gordon Brown in the event of a Labour defeat in the spring, and who wants to spend four or five years in opposition?