Europe In Winter

Signs and portents, signs and portents. Wild promises are made at Party Conferences, LibDem MPs suddenly discovering that they do have spines, Tories parachuting out of the party to land in the gnarly arms of Nigel Farage, and David Cameron is having a row with Europe. Anyone would think there was an election coming up…

Personally, I think leaving the EU is the very last thing the Prime Minister wants to do, but he’s faced with the possibility of UKIP stealing voters and possibly more Tory MPs in the run-up to what will almost certainly be one of the tightest and dirtiest election campaigns in British history. So he’s furrowing his brow and pronouncing on immigration and opposition to EU policies, which always plays well with the home crowd.

He faces an uphill battle. The free passage of labour across borders is one of the founding tenets of the EU, and David Cameron is not going to get it set aside, certainly not just for Britain. The Prime Minister knows that, but again it looks good to the anti-European faction within his own party. It’s a great soundbite from a Conference speech. The problem comes when it’s time to deliver.

Weirdly, the EU has come to Cameron’s aid with its recent surcharge demand. Reading back through press reports, I find there’s a strange foggy area in the recent past obscuring just who knew what and when. Did the Treasury know about the surcharge weeks before the news broke? Were British eurocrats involved in the decision-making process? Did nobody really bother to warn Number Ten this was coming?

I’m not, to be honest, sure whether we can say Britain is in the EU. We’re not signed up to Schengen, we’re not part of the Eurozone. We’re not wholeheartedly involved in the way that, say, Germany is. We pick and choose what parts of Europe we want to be involved in.

In truth, Britain is not European. It’s a thing unto itself, staring, slightly distastefully, at the Continent across a narrow strip of water. We can’t ignore Europe because it’s our nearest trading partner and we’re part of NATO. But we’d rather be colleagues than friends, in our own time and on our own terms.

David Cameron’s playing a risky game. If he is, as I understand, looking for support from the other member states who were slapped with an increased surcharge, he’s going to mire the country in a euromess for months, perhaps years. I can’t see the EU backing down. The best outcome would be to quietly find some form of repayment acceptable to everyone. Which could take a while.

And as for the free movement of labour across borders, I might remind the Prime Minister and Chancellor that at one time British workers fled Thatcher’s Britain to find lucrative work on the Continent. But they probably never watched Auf Weidersehn, Pet.

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