Another day, another set of newspapers full to bursting with pieces about Britain’s fractious relationship with the European Union – all of which, in their way, will unnerve David Cameron.
The most enjoyable read is Boris Johnson’s column the Telegraph. Boris made his name as the Telegraph’s European Community Correspondent in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, writing amusing stories about the EC’s penchant for mad waste and corruption. He gives a reprise today, drawing attention to the fact that the EU distributes your money to Spanish sheep farmers who do not have any sheep.
Boris’ conclusion is that David Cameron must go into this week’s debates armed with Maggie’s handbag and tell Brussels that enough is enough. The implication is that Prime Minister Boris would not hesitate to put Maggie’s curlers through his mop and give the eurocrats hell.
Elsewhere, Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister and former member of the Bullingdon Club, tells readers of the Guardian that Britain gets a good deal from the EU. He also argues that the price of CAP reform is Britain’s budget rebate. The British government is trying to convince the Poles, a net recipient of EU funds, to support a budget freeze. On the basis of Sikorski’s article, the Poles will not accept cuts to EU cohesion funds (although there may be room for agreement on cutting the small beer of the EU’s central costs). Sikorski even issues a threat, describing the negotiations as ‘an important test of our friendship’.
It’s difficult to read Sikorski’s article and not reach the conclusion that Cameron was foolish to show his hand so early in the game. On the other hand, there is evidence that European governments appreciate the scale of Cameron’s domestic difficulties. Peter Mandelson, who apparently remains au fait with the Brussels scene, reports in the Financial Times that ‘the October vote in the House of Commons for a cut in the EU budget demonstrated to them (continental heads of government) his lack of freedom to manoeuvre. They were also taken aback by Tory bullying and surprised by Labour’s behaviour in supporting them.’ It is, therefore, little surpirse to read reports of a deal being pursued to circumnavigate Britain – a sign that, as Christopher Caldwell writes in this week’s magazine, Britain is being marginalised and that its formal relationship with the continent must change.
Mandelson goes on to say that ‘a test of opinion is inevitable, and pro-Europeans need to abandon their complacency about this… and those who take a realistic view of future need to prepare.’ The subtext of Mandelson piece is that he and Cameron share a ‘realistic view’ on Britain’s future, believing that it should remain within the European Union; Ken Clarke made a similar claim about Cameron’s convictions earlier today. Cameron merely told the CBI (a pro-EU audience on the whole) that he was a ‘good European’, which, I suspect, won’t be sufficient for either camp.