Having your cake and eating it

So while the rest of Europe got on with the task of not having everything ruined forever – Greece finally got a new government, Italian President Napolitano apparently had a little heart-to-heart talk with Silvio Berlusconi, and the Germans may or may not be investigating worst-case scenarios – some might be surprised to see Nick Clegg, otherwise as pro-Europe as it is physically possible for a British politician to be (not counting Andrew Duff), come out against a treaty change as “a huge political distraction”.

There’s no need for surprise, though. Clegg is, in fact, perfectly in line with a British government policy that attempts to on the one hand defend Britain’s actual interests in Europe, while on the other hand pacifying his Euro-sceptic Tory backbenchers who would rather that the whole project just went away forever. The result is that at this point, the British policy on Europe has come to resemble nothing so much as an overzealous dad at his son’s football match, shouting well-intentioned but not very useful advice from the sidelines while taking care to avoid any actual contributions to solving the problems and directly opposing measures that would be disadvantageous to the particular interests of the UK.

It is clear that this British agenda is increasingly diverging from the path that everyone else in the EU are gravitating towards. The leaders of most of the Eurozone countries, and especially France and Germany, are contemplating treaty changes that will give the Union greater authority or perhaps even entirely new competences in areas such as monetary and fiscal policy, which have otherwise been reserved for the Member States. Cameron, meanwhile, is contemplating treaty changes that will “repatriate” powers to the UK, i.e. in the exact opposite direction of what everyone else think is necessary.

The problem for Cameron, of course, is that he is extremely unlikely to win any friends among his colleagues in the Council in this manner. You cannot expect to on the one hand try to avoid any constructive engagement in the problems of the Eurozone – catch a free ride, as it were, out of a crisis that affects yourself as much as anyone else – and then at the same time expect to have much influence when you try to bring up your own particular issues, especially when they are this much at odds with the general trend.

So while these are not good times to make predictions about most things, I do feel pretty confident in predicting we will see more outbursts like President Sarkozy to Cameron at the October summit:

“You have lost a good opportunity to shut up. […] We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”

One does sympathise with the President.

EDIT: It just occurred to me that if a new treaty is introduced while Cameron is in office, it will the first one signed by a Tory government since Maastricht in 1992 (although Amsterdam was substantially negotiated under Major). Yeah, this could get very interesting.

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