Cameron's EU Policy Bad for Britain

Cameron's EU Policy Bad for Britain

The Tory leader has bought his party's patience over Europe with a barren set of negotiations which are foolish and wrong

IT WAS A nifty act of escapology. First, David Cameron trussed himself into a stance of implacable opposition to the Lisbon treaty. The Conservative leader let his hands be bound in a referendum pledge made, so he said, of "cast iron". Then, last week, he wriggled free.

The trick lies in Mr Cameron's claim not to have retreated from the old Euroscepticism, but simply to pursue it by new means.

When Václav Klaus, the

The rest of the new policy is to secure guarantees of Britain's separateness from the EU in certain key areas. Inconveniently for the Tories, much of what they want has already been granted.

Mr Cameron wants to limit Britain's involvement in EU initiatives on justice, policing and immigration, for example. But under Lisbon, the UK already has the choice over whether to "opt in" to such co-operation.

Likewise, Mr Cameron wants to withdraw Britain from the Lisbon "charter of fundamental rights". But Britain already has special exemptions from the charter.

Mr Cameron's last and most ambitious target is social and employment policy. But the EU has mostly stopped legislating in this area now. Negotiating a retrospective British withdrawal from existing laws would require a vast effort simply to excuse the country from such apparently wicked entitlements as maternity leave and equal pay.

It is hard to see how Britain's interests would be served by picking a fight with the rest of Europe over such paltry prizes.

Meanwhile, seen from the perspective of other member states, Mr Cameron's position reinforces a view of Britain as habitually niggardly, arrogant and dishonest in its EU dealings. London haughtily demands special treatment and is still never satisfied.

But an inability to grasp that view is fundamental to hardline Eurosceptics. They refuse to believe that the EU is a collaboration of nation states, insisting instead that it is a conspiracy by "bureaucrats".

That mental block could derail Mr Cameron's policy. He has bought his party's patience with a promise of something he plans to deliver by negotiation. But the party wanted a referendum precisely because the outcome would be non-negotiable. The sceptics reject further compromise on principle.

So whatever Mr Cameron offers his EU partners in exchange for some symbolic "repatriation" of powers it will be seen in Westminster as a betrayal. And since the rest of the EU knows that the Conservatives cannot be satisfied, they have no incentive to indulge Mr Cameron's demands.

To commit Britain, as Mr Cameron has done, to such a barren set of negotiations just about makes sense as a cynical pre-election tactic. But as a statement of foreign policy for a prospective government it is foolish, dangerous and wrong.

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