World leaders know how to maintain a poker face with journalists, but yesterday, when asked about the Conservative Party’s choice of European allies, Nicolas Sarkozy’s discomfort was still palpable. The French President didn’t want to be drawn into the cut and thrust of the upcoming election, but the subtext of his response was clear: David Cameron’s decision to quit the mainstream grouping of centre-right parties has damaged his influence with European leaders.
Of course the Tory spindoctors will make much of the fact that Sarkozy left the Downing Street press conference for a meeting with Cameron, but that’s simply careful diplomacy by a foreign leader visiting so close to the election. The reality is that by leaving the European People’s Party the Conservatives have become isolated from former allies, including the parties currently holding power in France and Germany.
That isolation is something we see week-in, week-out in the European Parliament, where the Conservatives’ new group is unable to muster the support it needs to have any real influence over key decisions; a fact to which some of the more experienced Tories in Brussels will privately admit.
Instead, Cameron has joined with a rag-bag of partners who are so extreme they have driven their former leader in the European Parliament to join the Lib Dems.
Labour MEPs are part of the second largest group in the parliament, pulling together sister parties from across the EU. We aren’t limited to making empty statements from the sidelines; we can influence the debate and have an impact on decisions. Whether it is taking charge of the global economy or tackling cross border crime, it is now more important than ever to find international solutions to the challenges we face.
So why has Cameron isolated himself in this way? The answer is straightforward: it’s what the right-wing of his party wanted. If you ask voters to rank issues on the basis of what’s important to them, Europe isn’t high on the agenda. Run the same poll on Conservative Party candidates though, and you get a different story. To get the support he needed to win the 2005 leadership election Cameron had to promise that, when it comes to all things European, he would take his party into the political wilderness.
The decision to leave the EPP wasn’t about how best to deliver on his party’s objectives in Europe. It wasn’t about winning British people a better deal from the EU. It was about winning the Tory leadership battle. When choosing what influence David Cameron wanted over European affairs, he decided that keeping the right of his party on board was what really mattered.
That’s got to raise questions about his judgement because, if we want to make a difference on the international stage, strong bilateral ties with Belize won’t be enough.