David Cameron’s refusal to sign a treaty proposing strict new rules on spending and taxation within the eurozone has been met with radically varying reactions. The problem is that the UK Conservative Party’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, is a staunch supporter of the EU and the UK maintaining a close relationship with Brussels. Its leader, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, is a particular Euro-fan, of mixed heritage himself and married to a Spanish woman. From its perspective, and that of much of the left-leaning UK media, Cameron’s decision is indicative of his desire to ingratiate himself with the City of London and his willingness to sell the coalition government down the river to appease jingoistic elements within his party.
Clegg said on Sunday he was “bitterly disappointed” by the veto, which he feared would lead to the UK being “isolated and marginalised”. Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, writing in the Observer on Sunday, said the veto had effectively “tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain in a single night”.
Yet the fact is Cameron’s decision appears to have gone down an absolute treat with large chunks of the British public. The first poll conducted since the EU summit showed 62% agreed with Cameron’s stance, with only 19% opposing. The openly anti-EU Mail on Sunday put it: “Amid the frenetic recriminations following the summit, the poll shows Cameron’s dramatic move to set Britain on a separate course from the other 26 nations in the EU is wholeheartedly endorsed by voters.” The same poll also suggested that many Britons were in support of the UK quitting the EU altogether: 48% voted “yes”, with 33% against.
A survey of EU citizens in 2009 showed that support for the EU in the UK was one of the lowest, together with Latvia and Hungary. Euroscepticism within the UK tends to focus on the issue of immigration and the fact that EU membership means the UK must permit residence and social benefits for all EU citizens. There is also a widespread resentment at the notion that the EU can tell Britain what to do. Before Cameron left for Brussels last week, Conservative backbenchers urged him to show “bulldog spirit”. Clegg said in response: “There’s nothing bulldog about Britain hovering somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, not standing tall in Europe, not being taken seriously in Washington.”
Critics say Britain leaving the EU would be economically disastrous, with other EU countries certain to make the UK pay heavily for the privilege of continuing free trade. Other suggested problems include an end to cheap flights within the EU and a major loss of British influence in international relations. Some other aspects of a potential UK withdrawal, such as what would happen to EU residents currently living and working within the UK and vice versa, are simply unclear.
Cameron will face the House of Commons on the issue of the veto, and the UK’s relationship with Europe more broadly, on Monday. He will surely be bracing himself for a grilling. DM
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