Alyn Smith: Appeasing those in wingback chairs won’t do

Prime Minister David Cameron making his speech on Europe. Picture: PA
Prime Minister David Cameron making his speech on Europe. Picture: PA
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David Cameron’s shameful antics in Brussels may placate Tory dingbats but it ill-serves Scotland, writes Alyn Smith

SOMETIMES I feel sorry for David Cameron; it must be dispiriting to have to handle the malcontents of the Conservative party, like coming home every night to find Nurse Ratched is still on duty. Every party has people who disagree with the party leader and who would like to move in a different direction, every party has a few members who’ll rock the boat in every direction, but the Tories have a special breed of dingbat in their ranks and they’re very vocal and get lots of attention. They’ve coalesced around Euroscepticism but without any logical argument beyond “we just don’t like it” and a harrumph from the depths of a wing-back chair. No other party has an equivalent.

Where my sympathy for Mr Cameron fades is where he starts pandering to this brigade and swivels to join them. In trying to accommodate them, he insults the other partners in the European Union, and, as he’s the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he speaks in our name – for the moment.

His speech this week trundled through a slew of platitudes about Europe and a paean or two to a vision of the UK’s European history that he lifted straight from Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech. Let’s be clear, though, this was no match to her speech; it lacked all of the power and passion she deployed; this was a politician playing pat-a-cake to keep the noise down at the back.

Where previous UK prime ministers sought to place the UK at the centre of what was happening in Europe, Mr Cameron strode off the park, calling the game a bogey. We should have been forewarned given he has already shown a lack of staying power in negotiations in Europe, having walked out of the room when the EU was trying to deal with the euro crisis – having made what other nations’ leaders described as unacceptable demands – but this was more than that. This speech set the UK’s direction of travel towards the fringe of the EU at the very least and, in all likelihood, on an exit path.

If we look at what he was demanding and promising we are left in little doubt about what trajectory we’re on now. He demanded treaty renegotiation, that the 27 other EU nations start making a new deal – including Croatia which has just signed up to the treaties as they stand and is due to join us in the summer. When diplomatic language may have advanced the interests of the UK (and, for the moment, of Scotland), Cameron chose to use the loudhailer of a political speech; the modern equivalent of gunboat diplomacy. He demanded special treatment for the UK at the expense of the other 27 member states and the chances of them saying “no bother, old bean, is there anything else we can help you with?” is slight, to say the least. Each of those other members will, of course, seek to protect their own national interests – just as David Cameron should have been doing.

He’s promised a referendum on the renegotiated package he expects to have by the next UK general election in 2015; a package that will see unspecified “powers” being “returned from Brussels”; and that referendum is to be a choice between the renegotiated package and exit from the EU – the golden dawn for Eurosceptics. Mr Cameron’s problem is that they won’t be satisfied; they don’t have a vision of where they want to go, just where they don’t want to be. They’d quite like the return of empire and every day to be a warm summer day with beer on the village green and the crack of willow on leather but they don’t have a plan for reality; no concept of what international trading options would be open nor how easy or difficult they’d be. They cannot be pacified but Mr Cameron is willing to give up all the influence his predecessors built so patiently in an attempt to do so.

Scotland’s reputation is suffering with the UK’s. We saw the portents of that back in December 2011 after the UK flounced out of the fiscal pact negotiations and I can report that we got no better reception from our European partners this week than we did then. When we should be right at the heart of driving forward a better deal for Scotland in the EU – where 45 per cent of Scotland’s exports go – we’re being pulled to cold corners of isolation.

Scotland’s interests are not served by walking away; the finishing touches are being put to the EU’s next round of funding for research; an area in which Scotland has done well in the past with around €350 million being secured in the past five years, led by Edinburgh University with some 300 projects. Our farmers and fishermen need ministers heading into negotiations able to make and maintain alliances and drive hard bargains – and we’d still need to negotiate even if we left the EU. Our interests would be better served if we were at the heart of the EU.

Structural funds, the protection of intellectual property, open trade, freedom of movement, the right to study, live and work anywhere in the EU, trans-European transport and telecom links, the list of areas where our interests are better served by being at the heart of Europe and the EU goes on. There is a continent of opportunity waiting for us.

In his speech, Mr Cameron said we should stop seeing the European Union as something done to us rather than something we are part of but he, himself, was guilty of exactly that. Scotland’s interests would be better served by political leaders determined to get us the best possible deal. We are ill-served by a Prime Minister who will walk away from the negotiating table to quiet the harrumph from the wing-back chair.

lAlyn Smith is a Scottish National Party MEP for Scotland