Cameron’s Annus Horribilis
The choices of Britain’s Prime Minister will weigh heavily on the future of Europe.
January 6, 2016
Will 2016 be the annus mirablis or the annus horriblis for David Cameron? Rarely has a British prime minister confronted his destiny quite so directly as Cameron, who celebrates his 50th birthday in 2016.
In January 2013, he announced that Britain would hold a referendum on staying in or leaving the European Union. In the three years since, he has won a second term of office and also announced that he would stand down as prime minister before the next election in 2020.
Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who celebrated her tenth anniversary as British prime minister in 1989 by saying that she intended “to go on and on and on” (and found herself ousted a year later), Mr. Cameron is not insisting he must stay in power as Britain’s leader forever.
In 2005, Cameron and I discussed his bid to be leader of the Conservatives. I said to him if he did become leader, he stood a good chance of being Prime Minister. But I also urged him to reduce the temperature of the obsessive euroscepticism that had completely infected his Tory Party.
He smiled and said “I am much more eurosceptic than you imagine, Denis.”
He was telling the truth. Cameron is a member of a generation that entered political life in the 1990s, as their goddess, Margaret Thatcher, turned against Europe. She denounced Jacques Delors and European integration in the House of Commons.
After her dismissal as prime minister in 1990, Mrs. Thatcher became the patron of political euroscepticism which quickly infected the entire right-wing landscape in Britain.
EU’s economic slowdown
It coincided with the slowdown of economic growth and dynamism in the EU, which had followed the end of communism and the need for the Bonn Republic of West Germany to absorb the bankrupt economy of East Germany.
At the time, Europe still boasted about Airbus or France’s TGV train, but these were products from the 1960s and 1970s. The new economic energy came from the United States with Microsoft, Google, Apple and Amazon, as well as new financial industries and powerful universities shaping the future.
Europe, for its part, became a holiday center for much of the world, but critically found no sustainable mechanism to modernize the economies and societies of its corrupt, state-dependent southern zone of Greece, Spain or Italy.
So for Tories like David Cameron, Europe was the past and the United States and the new economic powers of Asia, especially China, were the future.
He took his Conservative Party out of the center-right family of parties in the European People’s Party to link it with religious nationalist parties from eastern Europe.
Cameron took every opportunity to denounce Europe and demanded a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty to defeat it.
Voices against EU membership
As prime minister after 2010, Cameron abolished the regular debates in the House of Commons on Europe and tried to impose a veto on greater eurozone integration after the crash.
Many Tory supporters had turned to UKIP, and the BBC turned the party’s populist leader, Nigel Farage, into a media star who seemed to be in daily media competition with David Cameron.
UKIP has two simple demands:. The first was a referendum on EU membership. The second was to quit Europe. David Cameron conceded on the first and it is assumed he wanted to avoid the second.
But at no stage in his leadership of the Conservative Party or his premiership of Britain has he come out forcibly and clearly to defend and promote Britain as an EU member state.
Instead, he describes the EU as “bossy and bureaucratic” and places himself alongside the mass circulation tabloid newspapers owned by men who do not live or pay taxes in Britain.
Rupert Murdoch owns both tabloids and the establishment Times papers. The owners of the middle-class’s favorite paper, the Daily Telegraph, live in tax exile, as does Lord Rothermere, the owner of the influential Daily Mail with 16 million online readers.
Editors and journalists on these papers have spent 20 years promoting anti-European lines.
British business organizations like the Confederation of British Industry or the British Chambers of Commerce have produced endless reports criticizing the EU for its regulations or policies that they claim hold back British business.
The same regulations and policies do not seem to hold back German, Swedish or Spanish business. Attacking the EU has allowed British business leaders to avoid discussing their own failings.
But now in 2016, that game is over. Mr. Cameron does not want to enter the hall of shame of failed British prime ministers who led the marginalization of Britain.
Neither does he want to lose British power and influence, which isolation from Europe following a Brexit vote would entail.
The Conservative Party has been the dominant political force in Britain for 250 years. It resists reform and change until it cannot be avoided. But it always prefers to bend rather than to break.
Cameron now has the difficult task of telling his party, the press and many eurosceptic business leaders that they have been in a cul-de-sac for the last 20 years.
Their anti-European statements may have sounded good in their own ears, but it is not in Britain’s national interest to isolate itself from the world’s largest single market.
Moreover, it is not beneficial for Britain to be outside the EU, which for all its problems has allowed an extension of democracy, middle class life and the rule of law to nations and peoples who had never known them in history.
Can Cameron convert himself on Europe, a eurosceptic Saul becoming a pro-EU Paul, and then convert his party? Of course, other EU leaders will give him as many promises as possible.
But they cannot offer an end to EU core values. That will make it impossible to allow London to impose quotas on EU citizens coming to Britain.
Likewise, the idea that the House of Commons can unilaterally veto any directive or rule decided by the EU Council that the British do not like is a complete non-starter.
This dangerous populist plebiscite that was called by one man – David Cameron can be lost by one man – David Cameron – unless he changes his beliefs of a lifetime.
That won’t be easy. Nor is it easy to persuade his Conservative Party to find virtue in the European Union that most Tories and the press have denounced and derided for two decades.
Can David Cameron make 2016 the year he becomes pro-European? On this question hangs the future not just of the United Kingdom as a unitary nation state but the future of Europe.
A Brexit will be followed by Marine Le Pen demanding a Frexit referendum in France. And that would mean that the centrifugal forces in Europe could accelerate to the point that the European Union ceases to survive.
As prime minister, Cameron abolished the regular debates in the House of Commons on Europe.
Attacking the EU has allowed British business leaders to avoid discussing their own failings.
Cameron doesn’t want to be one of those failed prime ministers who led the marginalization of Britain.
It is not in Britain’s national interest to isolate itself from the world’s largest single market.
Can Cameron convert himself on Europe, Saul becoming Paul, and then convert his party?
A Brexit will be followed by Marine Le Pen demanding a Frexit referendum in France.
The centrifugal forces in Europe could accelerate to a point that the EU ceases to survive.