An outbreak of Tory moderation on Europe or just wishful thinking….


For most of the past fifteen years, pro-European Conservatives have been on the endangered species list in British politics. In 2008 only three Conservative MPs out of a caucus of nearly 200 voted in favour of the Lisbon treaty.  Thatcher government was dominated by europhile big-beasts – Douglas Hurd, Leon Brittan, Ken Clarke, Chris Patten and Thatcher’s nemesis, Michael Heseltine, just to name a few. Of these, only Clarke remains in David Cameron’s government, like the last europhile dinosaur waiting to be made extinct.

The decisive movement was the passing of the Maastricht treaty in 1993, which cost Prime Minister John Major his majority in Parliament, and caused a decisive split in the party which took a decade to heal. To the eurosceptic rebels, this was the moment that the EU ceased to be about trade and became a political union hell bent on destroying the nation state. To the rest of the country, it is symbolic of a time when the Conservative party decided to make itself unelectable.

Even now, the degree of anti-EU vitriol in the Conservative party has to be seen and heard to be believed, and one of the best places is the Conservative Home site. Last week Robert Buckland, elected as a Tory MP in 2010, penned a thoughtful and fairly innocuous article to the effect that Britain is starting to assert itself in the EU and that this was a good thing. Fairly uncontroversial stuff, and quite hard to disagree with considering that it is only a fortnight ago that David Cameron teamed up with Angela Merkel to win a 3 per cent cut to the EU budget.

In fact, the comments on Buckland’s article by fellow Conservatives illustrates why the party’s moderate wing has tended to keep quiet and why Tory europhilia was – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – like a love that dared not speak its name. Anybody who doesn’t think the Brits should close up the Channel Tunnel and thumb their nose at the continent is in the pay of ‘Brussels’ and/or a “quisling”. Quite how supposedly intelligent people equate support for British EU membership with Nazi collaboration is beyond me.

But, dare I say it, the green shoots of a more moderate eurorealism in the Tory party are starting to show. Several weeks ago, Buckland was one of a group of backbench MPs that launched the European Mainstream group within the Conservative parliamentary party. European Mainstream becomes the second pro-European campaign group to be set up in 2013, following the equally clunky-named cross-party Campaign for British Influence through Europe.

Since then, the EU has announced plans to negotiate a series of bilateral trade deals with G20 countries, with the jewel in the crown being a trade deal with the US – more manna from heaven for free marketeers you might think.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Tory party has not suddenly morphed into a hotbed of federalists. For the time being, there are only 12 MPs declared as members – with the Financial Times reporting that there are another 10-15 who are still too nervous to declare themselves public.

Neither is the party’s eurosceptic rhetoric likely to be toned down. The Tories are scared that losing votes to UKIP could cost them a parliamentary majority in 2015 and lead to a humiliating defeat in next year’s European elections. Taking a hard line on eastern European migration and complaining about the iniquity of ‘regulations from Brussels’ will remain the party’s default setting.

But it is significant enough that they feel brave enough to put their heads above the parapet, and are seemingly prepared to face down critics from their local constituency party. This may turn out to be part of the slow drift of MPs taking sides in advance of an ‘in/out’ referendum. But it just might be a sign that the Conservative party’s silent majority is finally ready to challenge the eurosceptics.

 

  1. #1 by RCS on February 27, 2013 - 3:20 pm

    I don’t think that this is a Tory Europhile renaissence. Most Tories can see the damage that the EU has done to our agriculture, fishing, society due to immigration and our democracy. While I agree that many of our problems are home-grown, the influence of the EU in the internal affairs of the UK does not help us solve them.

    Most Tories would like the UK to be governed by politicians elected by the UK. This stems from the perception that the EU simply doesn’t work properly as a government, has led to a number of disasters such as the CAP, CFP, the Euro and is becoming an economically stagnant, anti-democratic backwater.

  2. #2 by jon livesey on February 28, 2013 - 12:37 am

    “But it just might be a sign that the Conservative party’s silent majority is finally ready to challenge the eurosceptics.”

    And next they should take on the fools who think the World is a globe, when everyone really knows it is flat.

    Seriously, how can anyone look at the mess that is the EU and the euro and talk with a straight face about “taking on the eurosceptics”?

  3. #3 by Rick Daudi on February 28, 2013 - 9:48 am

    The UK lost the triple A. It is not doing better than the European average and worst than most Scandinavian, Central and Northwestern European countries. It is too early to say British isolationism has backfired, but perhaps even Tories are starting to wonder if it is not ruining the economy?

    Politically: the UK lost a lot of political power inside the EU, due to its new isolationism. If it leaves the EU, the UK (or possibly only England and Wales if Scotland declares independence) will in the next decade have its independent voice and course back on the world stae. Though will anyone listen to a small and increasingly unimportant backwater?

  4. #4 by jon livesey on February 28, 2013 - 11:00 pm

    Just on a note of realism, the UK has roughly 7.5% unemployment, compared to over 11% for the euro area, and in 2012 the UK grew by 0.2% compared to a contraction of 0.9% for the euro-area. The euro-area is well on its way into a triple-dip recession, and revised numbers released yesterday suggest that the UK’s famous double-dip never really happened.

    People love to find negative things to say about the UK but sometimes the facts simply don’t cooperate. As more than one person has joked, give us a call when the EU is propping up the UK rather than the other way round.

    And as for the europhile’s favourite topic, Scotland, the last BBC poll suggested that support for Independence is running at about 32% in Scotland.

    And as for the pablum about “increasingly unimportant backwater”, well, pablum is pablum. If the UK is so unimportant, one really has to wonder why so much fuss is made over the prospect of it leaving the EU.

  5. #5 by jon livesey on March 1, 2013 - 12:44 am

    I happened to notice side-by-side headlines in the Guardian today.

    In one, Rompuy is sternly warning the UK not to even think of re-negotiating its relationship with Europe.

    In the other, ordinary Greeks are finding pharmacies running short of essential. non-exotic, drugs.

    I guess it’s true what they say: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

  6. #6 by Patrick on March 1, 2013 - 11:47 am

    “sternly warning the UK” = Europhobe babble for those nasty foreigners telling us what to do

    van Rompuy is actually calling Cameron’s bluff on the referendum, probably prompted by repeated questions by UK journalists in press conferences about renegotiation.

    In the same Guardian article, one of the UK’s so-called “allies”, the Netherlands, also says that it’s not interested in reopening the Treaties. The focus today is rightly on resolving the eurozone’s problems and not UK navel-gazing. As van Rompuy also mentioned in the article, the UK always has the option of using Article 50 in the Treaty, i.e. the exit clause.

  7. #7 by jon livesey on March 1, 2013 - 10:03 pm

    I’m not sure why anyone is so “focused on solving the eurozone’s problems.” After all, here is some very good news from Olli Rehn:

    “Europe’s recovery in the real economy has taken hold and is becoming self-sustaining.”

    Terrific, right? Except that that is what Rehn said in Spring 2010, more than two years ago, and since then euro-zone unemployment has risen from 10% to 11.9% and the euro-zone growth rate has fallen from plus 0.6% a year to minus 0.9%.

    The point I am making here should be obvious. A phrase like “solving the euro-zone’s problems” is just an empty sound-bite if no-one actually manages to do anything *effective* to that end.

    It is like someone talking about “getting to grips with my weight problems” while they reach for another cream cake.

    And this is completely typical for the euro-zone and its defenders. They talk in vapid generalities and enthusiastic slogans, but never in terms of specific numbers, because they can’t. The numbers don’t back up the pro-EU arguments, so slogans are all they have left.

    And this is true on a bigger scale. These days you hardly ever read a mainstream economist defending the EU or euro or the ideas behind them, because trying to mount a quantified defence is simply too embarrassing.

    So all the EU is left with is defences by people like the author of the column above, who assumes his conclusion and writes as if the EU/euro is a huge success, and all we have to do is round up a few straggling sceptics.

    The EU needs to get off its snooty high-horse and think seriously about opening up the Treaties and fixing the basic system, because the policies the Treaties are imposing are killing their economy.

  8. #8 by jon livesey on March 1, 2013 - 10:32 pm

    More terrific news, as the euro-zone continues to solve its problems. Bankia, the nationalized Spanish Banks just reported an annual loss of E19.2bn, mostly from defaulting real estate loans.

    There shouldn’t be any surprise here. When Spain entered the euro, interest rates fell dramatically. But when you have a semi-developed economy and a very poor post-secondary education system, you lack the technicians and managers who could put that cheap investment credit to good use, so you build houses with it instead, since house-building roughly matches the skill set of your labour force.

    And then, if cheap credit is all that is driving the building of houses, no-one does any good market research, so inevitably you build houses for a market that doesn’t exist. There never were any million eager house buyers itching to buy a house in Spain, even in the good times.

    And the next thing you discover is the difference between a house price bubble and a house building bubble. When individuals buy houses in a bubble, and the bubble collapses, the really unwise buyers default early, and the rest make an effort to keep making their payments. So the US and UK saw their problems early on, and today mortgage backed securities have become sound investments again. I own some myself.

    In Spain, on the other hand, the houses remain unsold, the credit is owed by developers, Spain’s laws allowed bad debts to sit unrecognized for years, and now it is finally catching up with them and it’s yet another thing for the taxpayer to deal with.

    Meanwhile Spain’s Banks overall owe about E400bn to the EuroSystem, via the Bank of Spain and Target2.

  9. #9 by Pat on March 2, 2013 - 10:51 am

    Do you really believe what you write?
    “”"But it just might be a sign that the Conservative party’s silent majority is finally ready to challenge the eurosceptics”"”. :
    DO you really believe that there is even a “significant” minority of Conservative MPS willing to go against their party activists?

    Though you have hit the nail on the head with”
    “”"”Neither is the party’s eurosceptic rhetoric likely to be toned down. The Tories are scared that losing votes to UKIP could cost them a parliamentary majority in 2015 and lead to a humiliating defeat in next year’s European elections””"”"” …
    the recent local election has clearly shown that (cast Iron) Camerons referendum promise is not trusted by the voters. Also I might point out that the essence of democracy is not promising one thing to the public & then weaseling out of that promise claiming “Statesmanship”, this attitude is not reinforcing democracy it is destroying democracy all Europe over Europe. See Blair’s “Constitutional treaty promise” & Cameron “Cast Iron Lisbon referendum guarantee”. Today’s modern politicians have lost the confidence of the voters & have only themselves to blame when something horrendous takes its place.

  10. #10 by Brendan Donnelly on March 2, 2013 - 3:01 pm

    The wishful thinking is to imagine that there is a “silent majority” in the Conservative Party favourable to a more constructive role for the United Kingdom in the European Union. Fifteen years ago, there was indeed such a silent majority, but it remained so quiescent and complacent in the face of Eurosceptic intransigence that in today’s Conservative Party attitudes to the European Union are frequently indistinguishable from those of UKIP. Whatever the admirable courage of some individuals involved, a tiny pro-European Conservative lobby group, the majority of which is unprepared to be identified, can safely be disregarded by the Conservative Party leadership.

  11. #11 by jon livesey on March 4, 2013 - 2:01 am

    No, it is not wishful thinking to suppose that there is a minority or even a majority in the Tory Party that advocate a constructive UK role in the EU. It just depends on how you define the word “constructive”.

    If constructive means giving in to every new rule and regulation brought in by EU civil servants, all of whose instincts derive from economies and cultures that are very different to that of the UK, few Tories would back that.

    But if constructive means the UK concentrating on membership of the Single Market, and wishing the euro-zone all the best as it pursues deeper fiscal integration, then very many Tories would favour that.

    In the debate on the EU, I believe that the burden of proof lies with those who seem to think that over-regulation and interference in UK domestic affairs is some kind of masochistic “price” the UK ought to be willing to pay for free trade. Free trade is a good in and of itself. It is not something that needs to be balanced out by economic self-harm.

  12. #12 by Brendan Donnelly on March 8, 2013 - 1:23 pm

    It is very difficult to see how anybody who believes the propositions contained in the second and last paragraphs of the preceding contribution could rationally wish Britain to remain a member of the European Union, when it is apparently simply a vehicle of over-regulation, interference and economic self-harm, run by people who come from a different planet to that inhabited by the writer. I do not accept that description of the European Union, but if I did I would certainly be advocating British withdrawal from the Union.