Stand on the sidelines, or play the game?

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Britain EuropeBy Jon Worth / @jonworth

It’s hard to imagine how, had they won in 2010, a Labour government would be facing the EU’s current economic and political woes. Labour’s words about the European Union were always softer and more favourable than the Tories’, but Blair’s commitment to put Britain at the heart of Europe always had a hollow ring. Being outside the Euro, Britain would have been partially sidelined in any case, but under Labour you could be sure the government would have tried to cling to whatever influence it had.

Under the current government things are much more complicated.

The most interesting thoughts on this issue were from George Osbourne in an interview with the Financial Times in July, summed up by The Economist’s Bagehot blog thus:

“(a) a big leap towards fiscal union is the only way of saving the single currency, (b) Britain has a strong interest in the survival of the single currency, (c) Britain must play no part in bailing out the single currency and will stand aloof from fiscal integration, thus (d) our national interest now lies in allowing Europe to divide into markedly different zones of integration, with us on the outside.”

Fair enough you might argue – this is simply a realistic position for the UK to take. Let the EU integrate further, and Britain can watch from a semi-detached position. It is not even paying lip service to Britain being central to the EU project, and it could even be more honest than Blair’s hollow words.

But then what happens when it comes to another policy area, much beloved of Foreign Secretary William Hague: defence cooperation with other European countries?

The UK and France are happy to work together bilaterally (as shown by the UK-France treaty signed in late 2010) but an EU military HQ is a step too far for the Foreign Secretary who has threatened to veto the idea, although 5 large EU Member States want to go ahead anyway. However the Treaty of Lisbon gives these states the mechanism to go ahead regardless, so there might be nothing that Hague can actually do to stop the development of the HQ. This would put the UK on the outside of the HQ, and France inside, the latter being the very country the UK wants to work with bilaterally (get your head around that). If Hague were behaving consistently with Osborne he would not be opposing this, but you can bet that David Miliband would have put the UK at the centre of such a debate.

A proxy skirmish is happening in Brussels in the corridors of the European Parliament where outspoken Liberal Democrat and federalist MEP Andrew Duff has been calling for federal economic government for the EU, requiring a new EU treaty to achieve it. His calls have been met with bluster from Tory leader in the EP, Martin Callanan, who has called Duff intolerant, “fanatical to the point of being scary” and that “We should not be talking about second-class EU membership, but flexible membership that is right for Britain”. The problem is that Callanan cannot answer how the UK could have anything other than second class membership if the country is to play no role in shaping the future economic government of the EU.

In short the UK’s policy towards the EU is in a state of confusion, torn between the need to be a major member state in the EU, and a bystander as the debate about economic government of the EU gathers pace. Don’t expect this tension to be reconciled any time soon by this government.

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