Walker's World: The Curse of Europe

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor  |  Dec. 12, 2005 at 10:10 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- The curse of Europe has returned to revisit the British Conservative party, and to thrust a dark and menacing cloud into the happy prospects that seemed to unfold before them with the election of their attractive young leader, David Cameron.

The party's divisions over Europe ended Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership, and shipwrecked her successor, John Major, with vicious internecine fighting between the Euroskeptic and Euro-enthusiast wings, with the bulk of the rank and file bullied into taking reluctant sides.

The party has been roiled -- and kept out of power -- ever since by the European curse. Major's successor, William Hague, fought and lost the general election of 2001 on a Euroskeptic platform and a bulldog Britain promise to 'save the Pound' from the lures of the new euro currency. His successor, Ian Duncan-Smith, was one of the leaders of the Euro-skeptic wing that destroyed John Major's government, and proved so inept that he was not even given the chance to fight a general election.

Michael Howard, who became Duncan-Smith's successor, had been another of the prime Euro-skeptics, but was a sensible and honest man who understood the damage divisions could do to his party. Michael Portillo, who was Major's Defense Secretary, recalled the other day just why Howard was an honorable man.

"When John Major, the prime minister, was preparing for the European summit in Maastricht in 1991, he asked Howard, as the senior cabinet minister representing the Tory right, what deal his wing of the party would accept," Portillo recalled. "Howard stipulated that Major should not sign up to the euro currency or to the range of new workplace rights called the social chapter. Major delivered on those conditions, which is why he was so bitter when later the right savaged the Maastricht legislation anyway." It was the Duncan-Smith wing of the Tory right, not Howard, who sabotaged that deal. And Howard was sensible enough to keep Europe off his party's agenda in this year's general election, which he may have lost, but in which he won more English votes than did Tony Blair's Labor Party. It was Scottish and Welsh voters who returned Blair to power.

But Howard's hopes of handing over to the new Tory leader David Cameron a united and reinvigorated party with a strong chance to win the next election after Blair steps down have now been threatened once again by Europe.

Cameron's rival in the leadership election, the Thatcherite and Euroskeptic David Davis, stood on a platform that promised to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the European Union, making it quite clear that if the terms were not acceptable, he was prepared to leave the EU on the grounds that they needed Britain more than Britain needed Europe. A big political flaw in this approach was that it would have meant the first year of the next Tory government would have been dominated by the ugly negotiations with the EU, to the exclusion of all else.

Nonetheless, Cameron had to come up with something to win at least some Euro-skeptic support, and he came up with a pledge to remove Britain's Conservatives in the European Parliament from the broad coalition of the EU center-right, the European Peoples' Party, which has 267 seats in the 732-seat EU Parliament. The EPP is dominated by Germany's Christian Democrats, and is passionately pro-Europe with many zealots seeking a federal United States of Europe with a common EU army and tax system and other goals that are anathema to Euro-skeptics.

So the first party crisis has now emerged, with Cameron's new shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, bustling across to Brussels to put down a revolt by the Conservative MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). Led by Tim Kirkhope and Sir Robert Atkins, the bulk of the MEPs do not want to leave the EPP, even though they do not agree with all its goals. To leave the EPP would be to marginalize British influence in the largest group in Parliament, they say, and leave them isolated or forced to sit with far-right MEPs, some of them openly neo-fascist. It would also be a foolish start to what should prove a promising relationship on the center-right with Germany's new Christian Democratic Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Ken Clarke, one of the grand old men of the Tory party (and a successful steward of the economy in the mid 1990s) Sunday branded David Cameron "the most extreme Euro-skeptic ever to lead the Tory Party.

"Some of our really hard-line people apparently have persuaded him he must break ranks and leave all these Christian Democrats and Scandinavian Conservatives and start waltzing off and looking for allies amongst the ultra-nationalist right in central Europe," Clarke told the BBC Politics show Sunday.

It may not be as bad as that. Hague is playing for time, talking vaguely of spending some months to consult and explore whether center-right Euro-skeptics might "form a new grouping in the European Parliament."

There is one ready-made, the Alliance for Open Europe, whose driving force is the strongly Euro-skeptic British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, which last week convened a "Congress of Brussels" dedicated to free markets, national sovereignty, and scaling down the EU into a free-trade zone rather than a nascent super-state.

Some 60 people turned up, including 18 MEPs, with many attending from conservative think tanks, including some in the United States and Canada. Not everything went well. The new body's founding patron, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, could not make the meeting, and some of the MEPs came from Poland's newly governing Law and Justice Party, which is far from free-market or libertarian in its beliefs.

Indeed, there are already two Euro-skeptic groups in the European Parliament, the largely Gaullist "Europe of Nations" group of 27 MEPs, and the Independence and Democracy group of 37 MEPs, which combines Danish leftists with Polish conservatives and Dutch Protestants. Hannan dreams of combining them all together into a new Euro-skeptic group of some 70 to 80 MEPs, who could challenge the Liberals to become the 3rd-largest group in the Parliament.

That would delight Euro-skeptics across the EU, who have long been shamefully under-represented in the EU Parliament because most conventional parties are run by the largely pro-EU political elite. The frustration with this of many EU voters led to the dramatic populist revolt of this summer. As Hannan told his Congress of Brussels last week: "The leaders of the European Union may still deny it, but last summer's 'No' votes to the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands have changed everything."

It may have changed everything in Europe. But it has not changed one crucial element of the political situation in Britain: the vulnerability of the Conservative Party to ruinous internal battles over the EU. The more successful Hannan and the cause of Euro-skepticism might be in Europe, the greater the threat of that Tory civil war erupting once again in Britain, and the greater the chance that Europe will destroy yet again the prospect of forming a government for the Tories' 5th leader in eight years. The curse of Europe will have struck again.

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