Is the UK still the ‘awkward partner’ in Europe

Although under Blair there seemed to be some movement towards a closer relationship with Europe, taking Britain into the Social Chapter, taking a lead in the proposed constitution and engaging in discussions with the Europeans, there were still ‘red lines’ drawn by Brown regarding tax and other policies. Brown established the 5 criteria that had to be met for the UK to join the euro and even when that criteria was met there were no plans to join, neither parties have any intentions to join the euro. Blair preferred his relationship with the US and this often side-lined him in Europe making him the ‘awkward partner’. The Iraq war 2003 with the US despite strong European opposition showed where UK loyalties lay. Although Blair supported enlargement and the ‘widening’ of the EU. Cameron and the conservatives have supported the idea of a ‘two speed Europe’ something Labour and the Lib Dems dislike.

The Coalition faced a different division to the internal rift between Blair and  Brown. Conservatives have traditionally been euro-sceptic, disliking the perceived loss of sovereignty whilst the Lib Dems are arguably the most pro-EU of the major parties. In coalition, they have distanced themselves further from Europe. The first move was to create a new group in the parliament for UK conservatives, splitting from the EPP where most of Merkels party sit. This soured relations with the Germans and many others. The introduction of a referendum lock with the EU powers act 2011 further served to isolate the UK from Europe suggesting that a new treaty couldn’t be passed without a referendum in the UK.

Cameron’s actions at European Council meetings have further isolated the UK in Europe. The vetoing of a fiscal compact at the Dec 2011 council although a propaganda win for his backbenchers, left the UK out of negotiations and showed that Europe couldn’t move forward to integration with the UK. The pact was seen as a way to save the euro and Cameron’s veto suggested he did not support this. Cameron removed himself from the table as the other countries continued to work towards a fiscal pact. Even Thatcher had not put herself in a position where she was not at the table.

Cameron went on to show a tough stance at budgetary talks but wasn’t alone this time as Merkel sided with him to oppose the budget earlier this year. Cameron wants to see a more austere programme for Europe, referring to the bureaucratic bodies such as the Commission to cut costs and stop wasting money. Domestically, Merkel faced criticism for siding with Cameron and angered the French. With the Paris-Berlin axis disappearing after election of Hollande, it seemed like a London-Berlin axis could be on the cards because Merkel understands the importance of having the UK and London in the EU.

The eurozone crisis has caused more problems for UK membership of Europe. The trend now in the EU is to move towards closer union, whether that be banking union or fiscal union, the EU is moving to a federal system. Cameron may get his ‘two speed’ wish as the UK gets further isolated from these developments. The proposed financial transactions tax, cap on bankers bonuses and the rules that Osborne is finding himself party to under the banking authority inherently put the UK in an awkward position in Europe, this half in, half out, a la carte position cannot be sustained much longer and the UK risks being left behind.