(Cartoon: Andy Davey/The Sun)
Editor's Note: Because of the developing situation over hostages in Algeria --- with Britons among the dead --- Prime Minister Cameron has postponed his speech. Meanwhile, President Obama issued a statement last night reinforcing the US warning against any British departure from the European Union --- supporting Jonathan Singerton's analysis below.
In British television legend, there is an iconic situation comedy, Dad’s Army, in which the actor Clive Dunn --- who passed away a few months ago --- had a series of memorable catchphrases.
In an unexpected tribute, the phrases of Dunn and his colleagues are a fitting context for British Prime Minister David Cameron today, as he gives one of the most important speeches of his Premiership.
As he speaks about British’s relationship with the European Union, Cameron may keep these words in mind.
“Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!”
Cameron’s immediate challenge is the long-standing dilemma of standing out among European countries while not being beholden to them --- or to the British public.
The balancing act has been to remain within the European Union for economic advantage, a goal recognised by most British businessmen as well as Cameron’s coalition partners. The Conservatives, a “Eurosceptic” party since the 1980s, have Chancellor or the Exchequer George Osborne declaring the relationship “must change”, echoing backbench MPs. However, the party also has pro-European advocates, including party elders Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine.
In normal circumstances, the balancing act would be carried out through the tactic of avoiding the issue. However, a combination of events, from the Eurozone crisis to the negotiation of powers between the EU and individual states to the legal dimension of the European Court of Human Rights, has forced Cameron to break cover. He has to give the appearance of recognising concerns about impingement of British sovereignty while staving off the end-game of a “Britexit” from the European Union.
Rule 1 of being under siege is to make clear --- to the European leaders and to British political factions --- that You Are Not Under Siege. But how does Cameron maintain the illusion that he is under control rather than under pressure?
Don’t Panic and remember….
“They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em”
In the last week, the Germans, especially those in the Bundestag, are not happy with the British stance. On his two-day visit to the UK, Gunter Kirchbaum --- the Chairman of Germany’s European Affairs Committee and top ally of Chancellor Merkel --- expressed his concern about Westminster’s blackmailing of Europe through a possible referendum.
So even if Cameron fears the outcome of a referendum that actually took place, the prospect of one offers advantage. The British position has already forced Merkel to suspend any plans to revise the Lisbon Treaty and form a tighter fiscal union in Europe --- a plan which she had put forcefully to the British Prime Minister at the last EU summit.
While tension remains, it is on British terms. The German press in the last week has reaffirmed that Cameron will likely not call for a complete withdrawal; instead, the watchword is “reform”, albeit in a long line of UK-EU difficulties stretching from the 1950s and Margaret Thatcher’s “No, No, No” of the 1980s.
“Permission to speak, Sir?”
Early last week the Obama Administration denounced the idea of a British referendum and European Union re-negotiations. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon said the "special relationship" would be undermined if Britain was not part of the EU.
Gordon reaffirmed, “We want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest." What exactly he meant by a strong British voice was unclear, but those words could represent American consent for a strengthened British position along the lines that Cameron is pursuing.
The primary American concern is still the same, however. Since the Eurozone crisis, the American vision of Europe has been of petty bickering in needless debates that are getting no closer to solving economic problems. Washington's frustration could be seen in Gordon’s comment, “Every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world.”
“There’s a war on, don’t you know!”
The real enemy for the Tories is a lot closer to home than Germany's Merkel or any power on the Continent.
The menace is the United Kingdom Independence Party. Polls suggest that they are likely to become the new third party in Britain, replacing the Conservatives’ coalition partner Liberal Democrats. Given their animosity towards Europe, it is unlikely that Cameron can forge a Government with them --- unless he made concessions to the point of a BritExit.
In November, Conservative MP Michael Fabricant made an approach via Twitter to UKIP leader Nigel Farage, only to be scorned:
@nigel_farage Nothing can happen for at least 24 months. I'm a great believer in never saying never.— Michael Fabricant (@Mike_Fabricant) November 25, 2012
No deals with the Tories; it's war. fb.me/240tUs7zF— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) November 25, 2012
With a possible deal out of the window, the Conservatives have gone on the attack. And that's the real significance of the American comments last week --- probably agreed by Cameron beforehand, the emphasis on the EU’s importance for the UK has dented the credibility of UKIP’s key mantra.
David Cameron will be walking a political tightrope today. Even if he can use the speech to stave off a referendum and push back both UKIP and the Germans, damage will likely have been done to the notino of Britain’s co-operation with Europe. It is no surprise, for example, that the speech will not be taking place on French or German soil but in the friendlier territory of the Netherlands.
Still, with Cameron bolstering his position with the Americans in advance, and with the Conservatives' opponents at home and abroad facing their own difficulties, this is unlikely to be a catastrophe. Just as Dad's Army muddled through, defying the weekly cry of "We're Doomed", so will the Prime Minister and a Britain outside the Euro but still inside the EU.