European policy of the new British government

Brendan Donnelly
The most important current development in British policy towards the European Union is the agreement of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to form a coalition government after the British general election of 6 May 2010.[1] European policy formed an important element of the coalition agreement and the relevant section of the agreement will set the terms of British policy within and towards the European Union over the life of the coalition, which the partners hope will be five years. As the senior partner of the coalition, the Conservative Party has seen much of its own European policy incorporated into the coalition’s political programme, but the Liberal Democrats have also seen some of their own ideas reflected in the document.
Conservative policies of the coalition
Britain will not join the Euro in the five years of the coalition government, nor will it make any preparations for doing so. The coalition will not sign during its period in office any treaty allowing further “transfer of sovereignty” to the European Union. It will introduce a “Referendum Bill” requiring that any future “transfers of sovereignty” to the Union will be the subject of a specific referendum. Any applications in future of the “passerelle” clauses of the Lisbon Treaty will be the subject of a full British parliamentary procedure of legislation, and not merely formal endorsement, as has been the case for much European legislation in the past.
Liberal Democrat contributions to the coalition’s programme
A number of undertakings of the Conservative manifesto on European issues figure in notably more restricted form in the coalition programme. In that manifesto, the Conservative Party had promised to seek to repatriate powers relating to social and employment policy; to introduce a “Sovereignty Bill” that would define more precisely the United Kingdom’s legal position within the European Union; to review the impact of the Charter of Fundamental Rights; and to ensure that European legislation did not impinge upon British criminal law. All these undertakings have been significantly watered down in the coalition agreement, to such an extent that it may be doubted whether any of them will become reality, a definite consequence of pressure on the Conservative Party by its coalition partner. The agreement also envisages willingness for the British government to decide on a “case by case” basis whether to opt into new internal security measures proposed by the European Commission, another significant concession by the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats.
It is widely believed that David Cameron is not sorry to be able to use the coalition with the Liberal Democrats as an excuse to abandon some of the more radical Eurosceptic policies promised in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. This belief is reinforced by his striking willingness to refrain from appointing as Minister for Europe the party’s spokesman in opposition on European questions, Mark Francois, a prominent Eurosceptic who played a leading role in the withdrawal of the Conservative Members of Parliament from the European People’s Party group at the European Parliament. The Minister for Europe will be instead David Lidington, a former special advisor to Douglas Hurd when the latter was British Foreign Secretary in the 1990s. Conservative policy towards the European Union over the next five years will undoubtedly be more conciliatory in tone and even in substance than it would have been if the Conservative Party were in government on its own.
Nevertheless, the election of 2010 marks an important milestone in the process of semi-detachment of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The decisions neither to join the Euro in this legislative period, nor to prepare to do so over the next five years; to reject any British participation in the deepening of sovereignty-sharing over the next five years; and the legacy to future governments of a binding and constricting Referendum Bill – all these are significant and cumulatively unmistakable moves of retreat for the United Kingdom from any aspiration to be treated as a full member of the European Union. In the same way that David Cameron’s willingness to soften his party’s Euroscepticism in the coalition says much about his long-term conception for the Conservative Party’s future positioning in British politics, so the willingness of the Liberal Democrats to join a government with a strong underlying Eurosceptic agenda says much about the movement of that party from its traditional position as the most outspokenly pro-European party in the United Kingdom. It may well be that the Liberal Democrats see no incongruity between the traditional pro-European position of their party and a willingness for the United Kingdom to remain outside the Euro for seven years at least. If that is so, that fact of itself says much about the state of the European debate in the United Kingdom in 2010 and how much the United Kingdom’s understanding of its role in the European Union has changed over the past fifteen years.

[1] Coalition agreement, May 2010.