Open Europe Blog

Our Director Mats Persson writes on his Telegraph blog:

Many commentators have rightly noted that infighting over the EU and immigration could cost the Conservatives the 2015 general election. There’s a second dimension to this, however: by tearing itself apart, ironically, the Tory Party also risks becoming a greater obstacle to the new settlement in Europe (that a vast majority of its MPs want) than anyone in Paris or Brussels.

Make no mistake: if that In/Out EU referendum comes in 2017, the Tory Party will – as Virginians say – split like a Baptist Church. I reckon there are about 30 Tory MPs who are “out no matter what”, 20 who are “in at any cost” and the rest are “swing voters” who would probably prefer to stay in a heavily reformed EU. Most Tory MPs will make up their minds based on what deal David Cameron can get in Europe.

Remember though, it’s not unusual for parties to split over Europe – particularly if referenda are involved. In part, this is a sign of a functioning democracy. In the 2003 Swedish referendum on the Euro, the governing Social Democrats were deeply split, with Ministers from the same government even campaigning on different sides. The French socialists were infamously divided over the European Constitution and in the 1975 EU referendum in the UK, Labour was all over the place.

Cameron yesterday again fought off a Tory EU rebellion, with two amendments to the Immigration Bill being backed by significant numbers of MPs. Dominic Raab’s amendment in particular – limiting the grounds on which foreign criminals can appeal deportation – encapsulated the ongoing clash between European “rule of law” (in this case the ECHR, not the EU) and Parliamentary democracy. It would be odd for the Tories not to discuss this, and it was a fully legitimate amendment.

However, there clearly comes a point when the Tory Party can become its own worst enemy in Europe. It’s one thing for the Tories to split when that referendum comes, another to rob itself of the very opportunity to test the limits of EU reform ahead of the vote.

There’s a vicious circle at play here. The UK media never seems to get tired of Tory split stories. It only takes a handful of vocal backbench MPs to create a “Tory rebellion” headline. English being the lingua franca, European politicians and commentators read the UK press, drawing the conclusion that, this is really all about a party talking to itself about itself. The many good reform ideas coming out of the UK are dismissed as a matter of “domestic politics” – an image happily (sometimes dishonestly) conveyed by a whole host of special interests, including those who have invested personal prestige in the EU project and seek to maintain the status quo. Cameron, meanwhile, is seen as an unreliable partner not in control at home. This perception is then fed back to the UK press, as a sign that Cameron is “isolated”, in turn hardening backbench opinion.

How to avoid this? Backbenchers need to be aware that every split – manufactured or real – reverberates far beyond the UK’s borders, often working against their ultimate objective. When the UK presents a united front, it often wins in Europe. Secondly, as I’ve argued before, Cameron just has to stop jumping from headline to headline. He’s giving his European partners whiplash. Finally, European commentators and politicians themselves need to be more intellectually honest. Surely, beyond the headlines, they must understand that the UK’s Europe debate is multi-faceted. Don’t use the Tories as an excuse not to engage on substance in the crucial debate about how to reform Europe.

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