Schisms re-open on Britain’s place in the EU

David Cameron is stuck between pro-European Coalition partners and a Conservative Party increasingly keen to pull away from the European Union. Which way should he jump?

‘Be careful what you wish for.’ That was the warning delivered first thing on Monday morning to the wing of the Conservative Party that would like to see the UK distance itself – or even withdraw completely – from the rest of the European Union.

Across Europe, the Eurozone crisis has prompted anxiety because of the knock-on effects on the global economy. But in Britain deeper soul-searching has continued even after a deal was struck last week at a summit in Brussels to stabilise the single European currency, prop up Europe’s most indebted nations and protect the banks from any more collapses.

David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, is trying to face two ways. His own Eurosceptic parliamentarians, as well as campaigners in newspapers like the Daily Express, want him either to offer the voters a referendum on whether to stay in the EU, or to use Eurozone woes as an opportunity to negotiate looser terms of membership. His Liberal Democrat Coalition partners are fiercely pro-European: it was Nick Clegg, the party leader and deputy PM who issued yesterday’s warning.

At war here are two opposing interpretations of British history. Some look back longingly on the policy of so-called Splendid Isolation at the end of the 19th Century, which saw the British remain aloof from permanent alliances with neighbouring nations, concentrating instead on colonies overseas.

For others, that posture is irrelevant now that the British Empire has died. For this group, the establishment of the European trade agreements, which then grew into the political entity that is the modern day EU, was beneficial – not just as a way of maintaining peace and co-operation, but also to create jobs and prosperity.

The pro-Europeans argue the country would damage itself if it rejected a central role in setting the rules for selling goods and services to Europe’s 500 million consumers.

‘We are not sleep-walking into a federal Europe. We are sleep-arguing ourselves out of the European Union,’ believes David Aaronovitch of The Times.

Awkward squad

This political commentator and other pro-Europeans believe that the Conservative Party has a unique obsession with the downsides of belonging to the EU club without acknowledging the benefits. If the political rows continue, perhaps even splitting the Coalition Government, they worry that the public will only hear one side of the argument during a referendum campaign.

In the meantime, some of Britain’s European allies have become so fed up with the UK’s complaints that they may be relieved to see the ‘awkward Brits’ side-lined or even leaving of their own accord. If that happens, would the isolation be splendid or ‘economic suicide’ as Nick Clegg claims?

You Decide

  1. Is a referendum the best way to decide big political questions? If so, why don't we have them all the time and get rid of the politicians?
  2. Is a political philosophy about being an independent sovereign nation more important, or a calculation about what is best for jobs, the economy, and trade? Can a nation have both?

Activities

  1. Prepare and deliver a short five-minute speech either for or against Britain's continued membership of the EU. Are you going for hearts, heads or both?
  2. Both sides of the argument about the EU like to quote opinion polls about what the British voters believe. Do some research into the different pollsters and their recent findings on subjects related to the EU. From your analysis, why are the findings variable?

Some People Say...

“Britain, an island nation, has never really been fully European.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the British public might get a vote?
The Conservativebackbenchers want to see that happen. Last week 81 of them rebelled against Mr Cameron's leadership and voted in favour of a referendum or renegotiation. And the rebels have vowed to continue agitating.
OK, but what do the British public think?
Most opinion polls show growing hostility to the EU. ICM showed 49% wanting to leave completely. But surveys also indicate that the issue is not among their top issues, which are jobs, the economy and public services.
What does that mean?
Politically, it's dangerous for Mr Cameron. Although the public probably agree with the Eurosceptics, they want him to share their priorities not those of his party.

Word Watch

Referendum
Also known as a plebiscite, a vote in which everyone is asked to accept or reject a particular proposal. In May 2011 the UK rejected a proposal to change the voting system for general elections. In 1975 67% of British voters said they wanted to remain part of the European Economic Community, as the EU was then known.
Splendid Isolation
Shorthand for British foreign policy under Conservative prime ministers Disraeli and Salisbury and up until the 1900s, when alliances were signed including the 'entente cordiale' with France.
Eurosceptic
A word to describe those sceptical about (suspicious of or hostile to) European integration, particularly the pooling of sovereignty.
Backbenchers
Members of Parliament who are neither ministers in the government, nor opposition party spokespeople on the leaders' teams. Ensuring their loyalty is one of the most difficult tasks of a political leader.

Subjects

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