Britain Lost Its Chance to Be Europe’s Balancer

David Cameron had his chance to weaken the Franco-German axis and blew it.

British prime minister David Cameron arrives for a European Council summit in Brussels, October 26, 2011
British prime minister David Cameron arrives for a European Council summit in Brussels, October 26, 2011 (The Council of the European Union)

The Telegraph newspaper worries that “an even tighter friendship” between France and Germany, as President François Hollande called for in Reims on Sunday, will leave Britain isolated in Europe.

Without careful consideration of what we want out of Europe and implacable negotiation, we could find ourselves back in the same position: sitting impotently on the sidelines, as our future is decided by the presidents and chancellors of our ancient rivals.

It may be too late.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, had an opportunity to save the eurozone and the United Kingdom’s role in Europe last November when he was prepared to back Angela Merkel’s push for closer European economic and fiscal integration as long as London’s financial industry would be exempt from reforms and Britain allowed to opt out of new regulations it didn’t like. The former was probably acceptable to her, the latter not so much.

If Britain and Germany had teamed up, France, which teetered on the brink of becoming the next Italy, would have had no choice but to relent.

But David Cameron dragged his feet, worried about Euroskepticism in his own Conservative Party and Britain in general. Merkel eventually managed to reach an accord with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. They pushed for a fiscal compact together which Cameron vetoed because the French wouldn’t bestow special status upon London’s City.

Cameron’s mistake was shortsightedness. The fiscal compact had little to do with financial regulation except to the extent that it may lead to a harmonization of tax rates — which Cameron could have blocked with Dutch, Estonian, German and Irish support.

Instead, he was obsessed with the City and cajoled into voting down the new treaty altogether for fear up upsetting his own electorate which almost certainly would have punished him in the next election if he had surrendered more powers to Brussels and there wasn’t a full economic recovery in Britain by then.

It is possible that Cameron can still put together a “northern alliance” of pro-austerity and pro-market governments stretching from the Netherlands to the Baltics but it appears that Chancellor Merkel has already decided that her best chance of saving Europe from malaise is to form a triumvirate with Hollande and Italy’s Mario Monti, even if it will cost the German taxpayer more. Cameron had his chance and he blew it.

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