Struggling with the paradox of a ‘neo-liberal’ Europe

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The medium was as predictable as the message. One of Britain’s tabloid newspapers – never shy about highlighting the supposed iniquities of those who dwell across the English channel – fulminated in a headline against politically-correct “EU [European Union] twits” who, it claimed, wanted to relabel a snack long known as Bombay Mix as “Mumbai Mix”.

In support of the – wholly specious – story, the Sun quoted the Europe spokesman for the UK’s opposition Conservative party, renowned for its trenchant euro-scepticism. It was, thundered Graham Brady, “the kind of ludicrous regulation that gives Brussels such a bad name”. So far, so predictable.

Yet the pronouncement nevertheless had a strangely dated ring. Under a new young leader, David Cameron, the party of Margaret Thatcher has been struggling to ditch much of the ideological baggage that has helped keep it out of office for nine years. Mr Brady’s comments, however, showed that, after decades in which divisions over Europe threatened to tear the Conservatives apart, the eurosceptics have the upper hand. But Mr Cameron’s alignment with the Tories’ Brussels-biffing wing has gone far beyond a little light pandering to the prejudices of Middle England. This month he pledged to withdraw his party from the mainstream right-of-centre grouping in the European Parliament.

He delayed the move until after the next elections to the parliament in 2009 – a compromise that has averted revolt among a rump of europhile Tory MPs.

But the commitment to pull out of the European People’s Party has not only raised questions about the influence a future Conservative government would exert on the continent. Ironically it has also served to focus minds on just how much the Commission has changed under its anti-protectionist, economically-liberal president José Manuel Barroso.

The party, which led Britain into the “common market” in 1973, developed its antipathy to Brussels during the 1985-95 stewardship of the federalist and socialist, Jacques Delors. His support for the EU’s social dimension fuelled Tory antagonism which found concrete expression in policies like a commitment to pull the UK out of the chapter on workers’ rights.

But the party’s approach may be out of kilter with the very different mood that now prevails in Brussels. “For business, we need to roll out a red carpet, not create red tape,” Mr Barroso, the former prime minister of Portugal, declared in March – a sentiment at odds with the typical Tory portrayal of Commission officials as enemies of capitalism.

Although Mr Barroso wants the EU to play a bigger role in areas such as energy policy and fighting crime, he is not a zealot for the EU constitution – a document which would endow the union with a foreign minister, diplomatic service, anthem and flag. He supports EU enlargement – a Conservative priority – and opposes the French policy of developing Europe as a “counterweight” to the US.

Some Conservatives experienced an epiphany when Jacques Chirac branded the EU as “neo-liberal,” following his country’s rejection of a draft constitution that was perceived as too Anglo-Saxon. Working on the basis that anything the French president dislikes is probably a good thing, leading Tories in Brussels admit a strong Commission can defend the EU’s single market.

Britain’s Spectator magazine, house journal for intellectual and socially well-connected Tories, this month hailed Mr Barroso as “charming, brilliant and good company”. It highlighted a “cruel paradox”: while Tories should support an effective Commission as a key ally in the fight against protectionism they would be obliged in the process to back a supranational body backed by unelected judges in the European Court of Justice.

This is not the only paradox the Tories face over Europe. Mr Barroso’s appointment was backed by right-of-centre parties across the EU and his patrons include Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

But Mr Cameron’s pledge to pull out of the EPP risks isolating him from such allies. The Conservative leader has not met Ms Merkel since he was elected in December. Mr Cameron has shunned the two pre-European summit meetings of the EPP alliance this year, missing the chance to meet other mainstream right-wing European leaders.

Instead he has been trawling for allies on the fringes of European politics, culminating in this month’s announcement of a deal with the Czech Civic Democratic Party, the most mainstream potential partner.

Some Conservatives say Mr Cameron never recovered from the experience of working at the Treasury in 1992 when Britain was humiliatingly ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. He believes that centre-right politicians like Germany’s Helmut Kohl did little to help. “Europe is moving in our direction and is focused much more on liberal reforms and delivering results,” said one senior Tory in Brussels. “The only problem is that Cameron and his clique haven’t noticed.”

Worryingly for Mr Cameron, some Tory europhiles have backed this analysis. Caroline Jackson, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, warned the Conservatives’ influence would now be “zero”.

Mr Cameron insists the proposed 2009 breakaway movement will strengthen the centre-right in Europe by allowing anti-federalists to operate in concert. Announcing the move he excoriated the “culture of hopelessness that has plagued the EU” and attacked its record on issues, from carbon emissions to its own accounts.

And even if some Conservatives are prepared to give Mr Barroso the benefit of the doubt, most still see fundamental flaws in its institutions and world view. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative eurosceptic MEP, admitted that, in contrast to the days when Mr Delors held sway, “there is at least a dilemma now”. But he cautioned it would be “very hard” to find Tories who had changed their minds. Uttering what some might see as an epitaph for the party’s record on Europe, Mr Hannan declared: “People almost always fit the facts to their existing prejudices, rather than the other way round.”

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