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FOCUS: BRITISH ELECTION
Will UK vote change EU relations?
A Conservative win could produce a change in European politics, Mark Seddon writes.
Last Modified: 03 May 2010 08:43 GMT
Conservatives in the past had been more euro-sceptical [GALLO/GETTY]

The second week of Britain's general election campaign ended with many commentators – and even more voters – yawning and complaining that this is fast becoming the most boring poll in memory.

Earlier in the week, I quietly slipped into a meeting in my home town of Buckingham to listen to Nigel Farage, the virulently anti-European Union leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), blame Brussels for this apparent non-event.

Farage believes that the issues of concern to the average Briton, such as the yawning deficit, immigration, defence or the great elephant in the room – the European Union and the Single Currency, are likely not to be addressed by the main parties because the British parliament has surrendered most of its powers to the parliament in Brussels.

This claim was made with much vigour by the Conservative Party and before them in the 1970s and 1980s, by the Labour Party, which had at one point advocated withdrawal from the then Common Market altogether.

There is a rule of thumb that the governing party in Britain tends to be reasonably pro-European, while the opposition makes much of the surrender of British sovereignty and takes on a more hostile stance.

Will this change if David Cameron, the Conservative leader, is elected prime minister in a few weeks time?

Referendum 'betrayal'

Despite what some say is Cameron's tactical silence on the issue, many Conservatives hope that no more authority will be surrendered to Brussels once their party comes to power. 

special report

On current form, they could be whistling in the dark.

Both Cameron and Gordon Brown, the incumbent prime minister, promised a referendum on the hugely contentious issue of the Lisbon Treaty.

The Treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, solidified many of the European institutions, gave the EU a president of sorts and moved Europe much closer to having a common foreign and defence policy.

As Cameron was not prime minister at the time, he could claim that it was not in his power to deliver on the promise of a referendum.

But few in his party believe he will want a referendum on the Treaty now that it has been ratified. As a result, many on the British right accuse him of "betrayal".

However, there is another reason why Cameron and the Conservative Party would rather not discuss the EU during this election.

Strange alliances

While there are plenty of euro-sceptic votes to be had – the British public has become increasingly hostile to the EU – Cameron and his front bench are anxious to avoid yet another full blown row over their distinctly odd alliances with far right-wing parties in the European parliament.

There is a fear such affiliations could scare votes away.

While on assignment with Al Jazeera English TV just over a year ago, I chanced upon a senior Conservative, Eric Pickles, boarding my flight at Warsaw airport, briefcase in hand.

As I had met Pickles many years ago to discuss local government, I struck up a conversation with him at the airport and inquired about the nature of his visit to Warsaw.

Since he was not forthcoming and I later discovered that he had been meeting with Michael Kaminski of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, I have kept an eye on his activities ever since.

Over the past few years, British Conservatives have left the mainstream centre-right European Peoples Party, which is the largest grouping in the European Parliament, and instead teamed up with the smaller euro-sceptic European Conservatives and Reformists.

This group not only includes Kaminski's party, which has been accused of anti-Semitism by the British foreign minister (a charge they denied), but also includes Robert Ziles Latvian party, "For Fatherland and Freedom".

Embarrassingly for both Cameron and Pickles, some members of this grouping have joined commemorative marches organised by retired members of the old Latvian division of the Waffen SS.

Last year the Obama administration expressed its concern at the British Conservative Party's links with these groups.

George Schwaub of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a Holocaust survivor said: "I think Winston Churchill would be turning in his grave".

Economic influence

The Conservatives have hit back at their Labour and overseas accusers, but their associations on a practical level leave them isolated within Europe, and distanced from natural allies in France and Germany. 

Should the Conservatives win under Cameron, my hunch is that the they will slowly edge back toward the mainstream European Peoples Party.

For such is the depth of Britain's economic malaise, no governing party will want to retreat to a form of isolationism that distances Britain both from Europe and potentially the US.

In truth, no political party now wants to be seen as too pro-European, not even the notoriously euro-friendly Liberal Democrats.

This is why the word "Europe" has not passed the lips of any of them.

Should Labour win on May 6, or be obliged to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it will most likely be business as usual with Europe, not least because the European political establishment knows that it has become deeply unpopular across the continent and dare not push for further integration now.

The question - still unanswered - is how Cameron intends to play the Europe card if he wins the election.

Once in office he will find it much more difficult to play his cards both ways.

Mark Seddon, Al Jazeera’s former UN correspondent is a political commentator and former editor of Tribune magazine.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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