Allies in Europe: Cameron must choose

This piece was posted on the Guardian website

Europe and the two faces of David Cameron

17 June 2010
The PM seems conflicted over the 'nutters, antisemites and homophobes' of his EU allies: where does he really stand?
On Wednesday night David Cameron did not turn up for dinner with his fellow Conservative prime ministers in Europe. The deals and decisions that Europe takes are pre-cooked, if not decided, at the dinners and informal meetings where EU leaders meet as party political animals. Civil servants churn out articles for prime ministers like the one co-signed today by Cameron and Sweden's beleaguered prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, in the FT, but the real wheeling and dealing is done on a much more party political basis than is commonly realised.

For the first time in decades a British prime minister has excluded himself from these key dinners of influence. Cameron's new allies in Europe were famously described as "nutters, antisemites and homophobes" by his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Sadly, Clegg's hyperbole appears to be justifiable.

In a plangent appeal, Professor Dovid Kotz of Vilnius University in Lithuania wrote about Cameron's new allies thus:

"The tiny, fragile Jewish communities that remain in eastern Europe are seriously undermined by the official British approval of its governments' distortions of the memory of the Shoa. In the UK's new political climate it is easier than ever for David Cameron to withdraw from the dangerous EU grouping and admit: 'I made an honest mistake.'"

In Britain, Cameron has done a deal with Lib Dems that, in effect, has isolated his Europhobe rightist MPs. But in Europe he persists in maintaining an alliance that seems at complete odds with his more centrist style in Britain. As Professor Rafal Pankowski notes: "Antisemitism is crucial to the Polish radical right [and] homophobia is particular has played an increasingly important role in rightwing populist propaganda." Any examination of the voting record of Tory-linked MEPs in Strasbourg proves the point.

Cameron is willing to slap down Eurosceptic Tory MPs in the Commons as he did yesterday to Douglas Carswell who raised the issue of a referendum on Europe. But Cameron appears unwilling to take on Daniel Hannam, the strongly anti-EU Tory MEP.

Or is it just a matter of time? The problem is that time is of the essence in Europe. Big decisions are being taken under the guidance of the dominant EU conservative groups. They are not just eurozone countries. Poland's Donald Tusk and other east and south-east European as well as Nordic states headed by centre-right parties all take part in the collective discussions within the EU party political networks.

Today Cameron will have a brief meeting with Michal Kaminski, the notorious Polish MEP who heads the Tory-created group in the European parliament. Without retelling Kaminski's malodorous political past, it is sufficient to note that he has no influence or status in Polish politics, none in EU circles, and that his line on the CAP is 100% at odds with that of British Tories. Why a British PM is giving status to such a marginal figure on the European landscape is a question only Cameron – or perhaps William Hague – can answer.

For the City, for British business, and for the national interest, it is a real problem that Cameron will be absent from an EU conservative dinner tonight. The French have a saying, les absents ont toujours tort (absentees are always in the wrong); it is always wrong not to turn up. British interests need our prime minister to be there where it counts, not dining with Clegg's "nutters, antisemities and homophobes".

When I first raised these problems a year ago Cameron protested privately to me, and got tetchy in the Commons when I spoke of his curious alliance. But now the issue is not about political point-scoring but about the national interest. Cameron should seek to sit at the same table as mainstream conservative parties in Europe and leave the extremes to their own devices.