The Independent: Isolation that damages both Britain and Europe

The Independent, Saturday 10 December 2011


What took place in Brussels in the early hours of yesterday morning was nothing short of a disaster for Britain, and perhaps for the European Union and its single currency, too.

Britain is now more marginalised from the rest of the European Union, and more bereft of political allies on its own continent than it has been for more than a decade – some might say since it joined the European Union in 1973.

The Prime Minister allowed Britain’s national interest to be dictated to him by 90 Eurosceptic MPs. Small matter that they constitute a mere 15 per cent of the current Parliament. They have shown how a small group, sharing a clear objective and loudly trumpeting an absolutist cause, can countermand the majority. From the moment the gravity of the euro crisis became apparent, Britain’s sceptics had identified an opportunity to realise their goal: the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The events of the past 48 hours regrettably bring that eventuality closer, de facto, if not – yet – de jure.

As dawn broke yesterday, Britain appeared to have three allies in its refusal to accept amendments to existing EU treaties as a means of salvaging the euro: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Sweden. That was three out of a possible 26. By mid-morning, the cold, hard light of day had persuaded all three to qualify their position and open the door, at least a crack, to signing a new financial accord. Britain’s isolation was complete.

[…] Continental European preconceptions about Britain’s semi-detachment from the EU project have once again been confirmed. Mr Cameron has left the impression that Britain only ever wanted to be part of Europe on its own, narrow, self-interested terms. There is no reason why any EU country should now be amenable to cutting Britain any slack.

[…] Britain also risks being isolated economically. Mr Cameron’s chief reason for declining either to amend existing treaties or to join a new, discrete, financial accord was to protect the position of the City of London as a European and global financial centre.

[…] But it has to be asked how long London’s primacy as a world financial centre, let alone any competitive advantage, can endure if Britain now floats off, metaphorically, into the Atlantic. Much of the City’s attraction to foreign business at present derives from its position in Europe. […] It is not at all clear that in his professed determination to protect the City, Mr Cameron has not, in the longer term, signed its death warrant.

Beyond the confined vision of Conservative politics, the Prime Minister’s veto risks bringing into being the worst of all possible worlds. If success in diplomacy is about achieving national objectives, while not alienating other people, Mr Cameron has single-handedly created the conditions for the two-speed Europe he decried, while displeasing almost everyone else around. Britain will be in the slow lane, if it is in any lane at all, and without even the limited say on eurozone matters it was able to claim before. What is more, Britain’s absence from any new accord could weaken both the effect of the agreement and the European Union as an institution. Mr Cameron used to argue that the health of the British economy required a healthy euro; why is this suddenly no longer so?

[…] If, in the end, the euro fails, British myopia must share the blame.

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