European policy of the new British government

The most impor­tant cur­rent devel­op­ment in British pol­i­cy towards the Euro­pean Union is the agree­ment of the Con­ser­v­a­tive and Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat Par­ties to form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment after the British gen­er­al elec­tion of 6 May 2010.11Coali­tion agree­ment, May 2010. Euro­pean pol­i­cy formed an impor­tant ele­ment of the coali­tion agree­ment and the rel­e­vant sec­tion of the agree­ment will set the terms of British pol­i­cy with­in and towards the Euro­pean Union over the life of the coali­tion, which the part­ners hope will be five years. As the senior part­ner of the coali­tion, the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty has seen much of its own Euro­pean pol­i­cy incor­po­rat­ed into the coalition’s polit­i­cal pro­gramme, but the Lib­er­al Democ­rats have also seen some of their own ideas reflect­ed in the document.

Conservative policies of the coalition

Britain will not join the Euro in the five years of the coali­tion gov­ern­ment, nor will it make any prepa­ra­tions for doing so. The coali­tion will not sign dur­ing its peri­od in office any treaty allow­ing fur­ther “trans­fer of sov­er­eign­ty” to the Euro­pean Union. It will intro­duce a “Ref­er­en­dum Bill” requir­ing that any future “trans­fers of sov­er­eign­ty” to the Union will be the sub­ject of a spe­cif­ic ref­er­en­dum. Any appli­ca­tions in future of the “passerelle” claus­es of the Lis­bon Treaty will be the sub­ject of a full British par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure of leg­is­la­tion, and not mere­ly for­mal endorse­ment, as has been the case for much Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion in the past.

Liberal Democrat contributions to the coalition’s programme

A num­ber of under­tak­ings of the Con­ser­v­a­tive man­i­festo on Euro­pean issues fig­ure in notably more restrict­ed form in the coali­tion pro­gramme. In that man­i­festo, the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty had promised to seek to repa­tri­ate pow­ers relat­ing to social and employ­ment pol­i­cy; to intro­duce a “Sov­er­eign­ty Bill” that would define more pre­cise­ly the Unit­ed Kingdom’s legal posi­tion with­in the Euro­pean Union; to review the impact of the Char­ter of Fun­da­men­tal Rights; and to ensure that Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion did not impinge upon British crim­i­nal law. All these under­tak­ings have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly watered down in the coali­tion agree­ment, to such an extent that it may be doubt­ed whether any of them will become real­i­ty, a def­i­nite con­se­quence of pres­sure on the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty by its coali­tion part­ner. The agree­ment also envis­ages will­ing­ness for the British gov­ern­ment to decide on a “case by case” basis whether to opt into new inter­nal secu­ri­ty mea­sures pro­posed by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sion by the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty to the Lib­er­al Democrats.

Comment

It is wide­ly believed that David Cameron is not sor­ry to be able to use the coali­tion with the Lib­er­al Democ­rats as an excuse to aban­don some of the more rad­i­cal Euroscep­tic poli­cies promised in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party’s man­i­festo. This belief is rein­forced by his strik­ing will­ing­ness to refrain from appoint­ing as Min­is­ter for Europe the party’s spokesman in oppo­si­tion on Euro­pean ques­tions, Mark Fran­cois, a promi­nent Euroscep­tic who played a lead­ing role in the with­draw­al of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment from the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty group at the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. The Min­is­ter for Europe will be instead David Lid­ing­ton, a for­mer spe­cial advi­sor to Dou­glas Hurd when the lat­ter was British For­eign Sec­re­tary in the 1990s. Con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­cy towards the Euro­pean Union over the next five years will undoubt­ed­ly be more con­cil­ia­to­ry in tone and even in sub­stance than it would have been if the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty were in gov­ern­ment on its own.

Nev­er­the­less, the elec­tion of 2010 marks an impor­tant mile­stone in the process of semi-detach­ment of the Unit­ed King­dom from the Euro­pean Union. The deci­sions nei­ther to join the Euro in this leg­isla­tive peri­od, nor to pre­pare to do so over the next five years; to reject any British par­tic­i­pa­tion in the deep­en­ing of sov­er­eign­ty-shar­ing over the next five years; and the lega­cy to future gov­ern­ments of a bind­ing and con­strict­ing Ref­er­en­dum Bill – all these are sig­nif­i­cant and cumu­la­tive­ly unmis­tak­able moves of retreat for the Unit­ed King­dom from any aspi­ra­tion to be treat­ed as a full mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union. In the same way that David Cameron’s will­ing­ness to soft­en his party’s Euroscep­ti­cism in the coali­tion says much about his long-term con­cep­tion for the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party’s future posi­tion­ing in British pol­i­tics, so the will­ing­ness of the Lib­er­al Democ­rats to join a gov­ern­ment with a strong under­ly­ing Euroscep­tic agen­da says much about the move­ment of that par­ty from its tra­di­tion­al posi­tion as the most out­spo­ken­ly pro-Euro­pean par­ty in the Unit­ed King­dom. It may well be that the Lib­er­al Democ­rats see no incon­gruity between the tra­di­tion­al pro-Euro­pean posi­tion of their par­ty and a will­ing­ness for the Unit­ed King­dom to remain out­side the Euro for sev­en years at least. If that is so, that fact of itself says much about the state of the Euro­pean debate in the Unit­ed King­dom in 2010 and how much the Unit­ed Kingdom’s under­stand­ing of its role in the Euro­pean Union has changed over the past fif­teen years.

    Footnotes

  • 1Coali­tion agree­ment, May 2010.

The reports focus on a report­ing peri­od from Decem­ber 2009 until May 2010. This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March and April 2010. Most of the 31 reports were deliv­ered in May 2010.

The EU-27 Watch No. 9 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.