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Sir Christopher Meyer

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Cameron in Europe: The Return of Pavlov's Dog

Posted: 8/12/2011 23:00

To quote the very great Yogi Berra, "it's déjà vu all over again".

"Cameron isolated!" screamed the headlines in the morning's press on the eve of yet another 'make-or-break' European summit (how many of these have we had this year?)

You can almost hear the licking of lips and the smacking of chops as the hacks head to Brussels for the gunfight at the EU Corral.

Through most of the '80s and '90s of the last century, the British press gorged on a rich diet of British battles inside the EC/EU against the Franco-German axis and almost everyone else.

The diet was so rich it became addictive. Thatcher revelled in it and made German Chancellor Kohl's life a misery (as he once admitted to me at a dinner in Bonn).

French President Mitterrand was so struck by the Iron Lady's qualities in defending British interests that he talked of her having "the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe."

What greater compliment from a Frenchman! (Mitterrand was not the only politician to invoke Thatcher's erotic attributes. Gorbachev, Felipe Gonzales of Spain and Samora Machel of Mozambique all had a thing for her.)

But, for prime minister John Major, tormented by the Eurosceptics in his party for not being Thatcher, Europe was a bed of nails. Before almost every European Council the British press, yapping like Pavlov's dogs, told him that he was isolated. It was politics as soap opera. Part of the problem was that the British press was nearly always right.

My dreams are still disturbed today by the memory of the 1994 European Council in Corfu - at which I was present as the Number 10 spokesman - where Major, outnumbered 11 to 1, vetoed the appointment of Belgian prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, to succeed Jacques Delors as President of the Commission.

Since Major's demise, the British press have been deprived of the Britain-isolated story. Tony Blair finessed it by giving way when he thought that he was going to end up in a minority of one.

Now it's back with a vengeance and Pavlov's dogs are gleefully yapping. But, history rarely repeats itself and David Cameron is not a re-run of Thatcher's or Major's splendid isolation in Europe. As never before, the threat to the EU is existential; and the UK has a powerful interest in the euro's survival in one form or another.

Nor is Cameron actually isolated like his conservative predecessors. There are nine other EU countries who are not members of the Eurozone. They are Cameron's natural allies, if British diplomacy can be clever enough to enlist them.

There are other things that add power to Cameron's elbow. It is a rule of EU politics that you show some understanding of other leaders' domestic political difficulties. Cameron has them; but so do Merkozy - in spades.

Sarkozy faces political oblivion in elections next year, Merkel in 2013. Cameron does not have to go to the country until 2015. Nor should Cameron be too discomforted by the charge that he is trying to exploit a desperate crisis in the EU by pursuing narrow nationalist ends. France and Germany are doing exactly the same.

No-one likes to let a crisis go to waste. The transaction tax that Berlin and Paris propose is aimed at the financial pre-eminence of the City of London, while the target of a single rate of corporation tax is Ireland, which is painfully pulling itself out of the slough of fiscal despond thanks in part to the lowest rate of corporation tax in the EU.

Cameron has also a possible nuclear weapon - unilateral action - the mere threat of which is almost as potent as the real thing. The defence of British interests need not depend on a painful and unsatisfactory process of negotiation with European partners - Germany and France by any other name.

There is instead the supremacy of parliament, an ancient and well-founded doctrine, which trumps the Brussels legislative process. It is no soft option as long as Cameron's Conservatives do not enjoy a majority in the Commons. But, its attraction is that would put the UK in the driving seat on the matter of the repatriation of powers; and it would horrify the Eurocrats, whose terror of democracy, however expressed, is a matter of record. To execute this calls for nerves of steel.

Does Cameron have what it takes?

 
 
 

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