Prime Minister David Cameron appeared in the Commons today, to give his reasons for keeping the UK out of the EU’s new fiscal pact — one that has now been consented to by the representatives of the 26 other EU members (17 eurozone members, nine non-). Everyone knew the principal reason — that Cameron could do nothing else. The “fiscal compact” that Germany has imposed on the EU is nothing like the fiscal union that euro sceptics have been dreading, but it has enough of the features — mandated deficit ceiling, a Tobin tax on financial transactions — that there was never any question of him acceding to it.
Cameron told the house that he had gone to Brussels seeking to come to an agreement, as long as certain safeguards could be met. They were “modest, but they were not forthcoming” he noted, more in sorrow than in etc. Of course nothing less than a near total opt-out would have been acceptable — especially on the Tobin tax — and had that been forthcoming, Cameron would have been in a real fix. The EU could have given the UK kittens, bl-wjobs and Belgium for free, and Cameron, on returning, would have still been portrayed as “the man who sold out to Europe”.
Mind you, the whole process is weird. Cameron issued a sort of zen veto, one that didn’t stop anything. It simply left the UK in a category of one — for the moment — still within the EU, but not in the fiscal compact, in a manner yet to be fully worked out. The notion of a veto has been essential to the political theatre of the whole process; otherwise it would have looked too nakedly like what Ed Miliband said it was: “losing”.
The liberal-left, and the centre have been howling about Cameron’s move throughout the day. In The Guardian, Peter Mandelson put the boot in comparinh him unfavourably to Thatcher (“she never left the table”), while David Owen, former Lib-Dem supremo, said that Cameron had taken the coalition for a ride, and Will Hutton said that it was a disaster for the UK.
Meanwhile in The Torygraph, they could barely contain their joy. Boris Johnston thought that Europe was angry because the UK had been right about the euro all along, while Ambrose Evans-Pritchard thought nothing had been resolved in the euro, and that it would have been folly to get any closer. Meanwhile in the New Statesman, Owen Jones says the new compact was “a disaster for the left”, a phrase that could well have its own keyboard shortcut these days.
The real and unquestionable losers, however, were the Liberal Democrats, and their leader Nick Clegg — who was so jammed up by Cameron’s actions that he stayed away from the Commons today, so as not to have to sit behind him when Cameron did his bulldog act. On Friday, Clegg had rubber-stamped Cameron’s negotiating position, which had involved specific measures to keep London-based banking out of the new, stronger regulations, and would have banned euro trading outside eurozone countries.
But as it is now becoming clear, Downing Street made almost no effort to lobby support for his position from the non-eurozone countries — and since the UK’s proposal was presented to the Brussels meeting at 2.30am, after a day’s continual negotiations, and was rejected out of hand. That is either a measure of almost total incompetence, or, more likely, of deliberately throwing the fight, so as to have kept faith with the Lib-Dems on paper.
Politically, this is stretching the coalition to breaking point, 18 months in. Clegg has now gone on the record, saying that this was “bad for Britain” and that it would leave the UK “isolated and marginalised”. Yet in the UK, as in France and Germany, the worst sort of local politics is determining national and international politics, with Angela Merkel defending her flank against the Free Democratic Party, Nicolas Sarkozy desperately angling for profile while facing an election from 15% behind, and Cameron desperate to face down the Right — and do it by whaling on a coalition partner who would do anything rather than spill the government to an early election.
Of these machinations is the new Europe being made — or unmade. For parliaments and peoples still have to ratify this deal, and the deal itself will not be enough to deal with the problems it is addressing — the compact is merely a first instalment. As this process continues — and there is a looming credit crunch, arising from the failure of the deal itself to impress investors — it will go in directions that no one can guess yet. The advantage has been to the technocrats for now. But since their legitimacy derives only from success, their support is more fragile than the even partially democratic regimes they replaced.
A week is a long time now, and the days within them are the “interesting times” of which we speak.