It was no secret that one of the greatest policy differences between the two parties comprising the coalition in Great Britain –the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats — was over policy towards the European Union. The Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition, are the most enthusiastic supporters of the European Union and previously favored Britain’s entry into the euro (although they have been silent on the subject lately).
Their leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is a former member of the European Parliament and speaks fluent Dutch and Spanish. To appease them, the coalition agreement reads that the government will be a “positive participants in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” The Conservatives are on the opposite pole when it comes to Europe and the assurance that they received in the coalition agreement was that Britain would not join the euro and the government pledged that there would be “no further transfer of sovereignty or powers” to Brussels.
This week the seam line was again exposed when the House of Commons passed a bill that promised that a referendum would be held should Britain sign a treaty that would pass “significant” powers to Brussels. A sizable number of conservative MPs voted against the government because they smelled a rat in the qualification “significant”. This basically left it up to the ministers and possibly the interpretation of the courts. The rebellious MPs remember full well how the Labour Party promised a similar referendum and then when the Lisbon Treaty was signed, passing on prerogatives to Brussels, it reneged on the promise claiming that the treaty was simply a “tidying up exercise” that did not essentially change things.
The Conservative party appeared to indicate that if it came to power it would retroactively hold such a referendum. However, party leader David Cameron beat a hasty retreat from this position fearing that it would be labeled adventurist by Labour and cost the Conservatives an election.
Given the European Union’s and the euro’s current travails, it may prove difficult to continue with this balancing act. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, paid a visit to London to press Britain to take a more active role. He reminded British economic leaders that the banks in the city of London are very active in euro transactions and that half the British exports go to the European Union. He recalled the agreement between France and Britain to pool their naval resources and thus maintain military influence while still cutting costs. Such integration was needed in other areas, he noted.
The French Prime Minister praised the United Kingdom for being a “silent partner” to countries in the euro bloc, but warned that solid partnership would not be enough, particularly in these troubled times.
The United Kingdom has coughed up £7 billion, representing nearly 10% of the Irish bailout. This made good sense for Britain because its banks were heavily invested in Ireland and a bankrupt Ireland would exert severe pressure on the British economy. Fillon warned of a “catastrophe and disaster” if the euro would collapse.
Conservative party members were not buying. They currently feel vindicated in their persistent opposition to the euro and have no intention of having Britain prop up what they feel was a mistake from its very inception. One MP summed up:“We stayed out of the euro for a reason. This mess is entirely of the euro zone’s own making.”
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