UK's Odd Coalition: Tories Loathe, Libs Love EU

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/12/2010 10:05:00 PM
And so it has come to pass: after the resignation of Gordon Brown as the UK's prime minister, we now have a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition after both parties reached an agreement. In a previous post, I explained my wholehearted support for the Liberal Democrats based on two issues which are most meaningful to me. To paraphrase the notion of a "single issue voter," I am a "double issue voter." The first issue of course is migration as I am but a migrant worker here in the UK. Second is the place of the UK in Europe. While the woes of Greece have dragged the euro down somewhat, I still regret not being paid in a currency which still promises to be a better store of value going forward than the pound. For another thing, what many casual observers seem to miss is that the US is racking up record deficits month after month while the Greek episode is occasioning moves towards limiting fiscal incontinence that Americans have no inclination to solve.

Actually, I am quite surprised the Liberal Democrats came away with as many Cabinet positions as they did given the circumstances--five, in fact. Still, the point remains that the two parties have longstanding differences on the matter of the UK's place in Europe. Earlier on, if you recall, there were hopes that the famously Eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic would put off signing on to the Lisbon Treaty for long enough so that the British Conservatives would come to power and put it to a referendum which would naturally doom the treaty [1, 2]. Thankfully, that has not come to pass.

Remember that Nick Clegg is a former Minister of European Parliament (MEP), and that he met his Spanish wife while serving as an MEP. During the televised debates, he famously chastised the Tories for aligning themselves not with the Europe People's Party--an more acceptable face of conservatism--to one which included "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes" [!] Hence possible infighting over Europe can occur within the coalition government over matters such as aid contributions to Greece (which haven't been called for, anyway) and bank regulation emanating from Brussels that encompasses the City of London.

Already, negotiations for a coalition government were supposedly thrown into some disarray as a leaked memo was unearthed revealing the Tories renewing Margaret Thatcher's aggressive attitude towards Brussels. Red lines, the European superstate, and all that jazz which has emanated from 10 Downing Street for years and years is once more...
A secret letter outlining Tory plans towards the EU has complicated efforts to secure a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The document, obtained by the Observer, was written by civil servants last week on the assumption of an outright Tory victory at the general election. It adopts a firm approach to the EU, and stresses that shadow foreign secretary William Hague would have adopted a tough approach to repatriation of powers in a meeting of EU foreign minister to be held tomorrow.

It would have set EU leaders on a crash course with the new Conservative government, with demands for the return of powers over criminal justice, and social and employment policy during the first term of a Conservative government. The staunchly eurosceptic stance will prove a major sticking point in David Cameron's talks with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg today, as the two men desperately try to put together a viable coalition government.

The pro-EU Lib Dems are likely to be unnerved by the letter, especially given explicit statements from Mr Cameron assuring voters that EU policy would constitute a Tory red line in negotiations. The letter, which would have been written from the foreign secretary to the prime minister, stresses that "the British relationship with the EU has changed with our election".

Mr Hague planned to tell his EU counterparts: "Rest assured that we seek engagement, not confrontation. But our aim is to achieve these commitments during this parliament. "You will find us firm but fair, playing a leading role, fighting our corner, practical and straight-talking." Tory sources told the Observer newspaper they had no knowledge of the letter last night.
However, you need to remember that, like many political parties, there are different wings even within the Conservative Party. In it there is a long line of grandees who are actually positively disposed to the European project unlike Thatcher and her figurative offspring. Think of grand old folks like the last Hong Kong Governor Christopher Patten or, more pertinently for today's example, Kenneth Clarke. Clarke is a Tory evergreen who has served in various posts for Thatcher and Major--Chancellor, Health, and Business Secretary--and now as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. (Being the shadow business secretary, Clarke was in line to fill that position again until the Liberal Democrats' Vince Cable took that role as part of the coalition.) The move is seen by many as another concession to the Liberal Democrats. By placing a pro-Europe Tory in the cabinet, he symbolizes that the new government will (hopefully) not stray too far in the Eurosceptic direction to the discomfort of the Lib Dems.

The infamously Tory-leaning Daily Telegraph describes Clarke, a man who's not endeared himself to many Tories by consistently backing scrapping the pound in favour of the euro, thusly:
Ken Clarke is one of the "big beasts" of the last Conservative government, and was the chancellor under John Major's government. He is credited with leading Britain out of the recession of the 1990s. He held a wide variety of other ministerial posts under both Thatcher and Major. Staunchly pro-Europe, he is a controversial figure on the Conservative front bench.
It will of course be interesting to see how the odd bedfellows, the Tories and Liberal Democrats, try to shape a cohesive European policy especially on security and economic matters. The choice of Clarke is an important gesture. However, I think it signals more of a consolidation of how far in the UK has become involved in the wider scheme of European integration than of how much further it wants to get involved.

The usual Tory threat position remains--any further movement into European integration should be subject to a referendum. Given how poisoned the UK media is against Europe--the Murdoch media machine especially--I don't think even moderate strides towards embracing Europe more are possible. Then again, it's good the Liberal Democrats are there to temper runaway Eurosceptic dyspeptics.

At any rate, here is the full text of what has been agreed on Europe; at least on paper:
  • We agree that the British Government will be a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners, with the goal of ensuring that all the nations of Europe are equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century: global competitiveness, global warming and global poverty.
  • We agree that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament. We will examine the balance of the EU's existing competences and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom.
  • We agree that we will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future Treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that Treaty - a 'referendum lock'. We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that the use of any passerelle would require primary legislation.
  • We will examine the case for a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament.
  • We agree that Britain will not join or prepare to join the Euro in this Parliament.
  • We agree that we will strongly defend the UK's national interests in the forthcoming EU budget negotiations and that the EU budget should only focus on those areas where the EU can add value.
  • We agree that we will press for the European Parliament only to have one seat, in Brussels [instead of shuttling between Strasbourg and Brussels].
  • We agree that we will approach forthcoming legislation in the area of criminal justice on a case by case basis, with a view to maximising our country's security, protecting Britain's civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system. Britain will not participate in the establishment of any European Public Prosecutor.