We do indeed live in strange times – even more so since this week on two separate occasions (in public) the eurosceptic Conservative
party have courted the European Union and voiced their support for it… Their election slogan is "Ready for Change" but are they actually "ready for change" vis-à-vis Europe?
In a speech last Thursday
(11th) the Conservative's shadow foreign secretary William Hague
, said that the Tories would play a "leading role in the EU
" if they arrived back in power.
If that wasn’t surprising enough, he then called the EU “an institution of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and its foreign policy,
” and that it was the Conservatives’ intention to be active in Brussels, “energetically engaging with our partners.
” (Finished choking on your snack/meal/coffee/tea yet?)
This is obviously rather a different tone than what we’ve previously heard and seen from the Tories vis-à-vis Europe - remember that this is the party headed by the anti-EU David Cameron who instructed his MEPs to leave the majority EPP
grouping within the European Parliament to form their own group on the sidelines pledging to take back power from Europe if elected Prime Minister… Strange...
Anyway, the latest Tory campaign praising and in support of the EU has arrived in light of a leaked document from the European Commission
due for release tomorrow (Wednesday 17th) which is set to condemn the British government for not tackling its huge public deficit incurred through fiscal stimulus’ introduced to reinvigorate the economy and that it needs to be cut faster than anticipated.
The Tories have consequently leapt these excerpts with George Osborne
, the shadow Chancellor, leading the offensive proclaiming it as “a heavy blow for Gordon Brown's credibility
The draft report, leaked to the news agency Reuters
, warned that "a credible timeframe for restoring public finances to a sustainable position requires additional fiscal tightening measures beyond those currently planned,
” and that “the overall conclusion is that the fiscal strategy in the convergence programme is not sufficiently ambitious and needs to be significantly reinforced.
"The Conservatives have been arguing that we need to reduce our record budget deficit more quickly in order to support the recovery,
" Mr Osborne said. "Our argument is backed by credit rating agencies, business leaders, international investors and now the European Commission.
Fellow Tory, Charles Clarke
, who was also a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the (very very extremely) rare pro-EU party members, said that the statement from Brussels was a "statement of the obvious
" and insisted that the government should put in place immediate plans to reduce the national debt. "What has to be done now is to get this debt rapidly under control and get rid of the bulk of the structural deficit during the next parliament,
” he said.
The Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has long been a supporter of Europe (and the Euro although not as much as his predecessor Tony Blair) and spoken in favour of it many times, however, has changed tact in a press conference in Downing Street today hitting back at the EU. He said “we have the most ambitious plan of any of the advanced countries for reducing our deficit… but what we will not do is put the recovery at risk.
“The European Commission,
” he said, “has made clear that we should not have the fiscal stimulus removed until the recovery is assured.
He then launched into his final and most telling attack stating “we will therefore make the best decisions for Britain, for British growth and for British jobs”.
Now that sounds like something you would expect to hear from the Conservative Party…Chris Bryant
, the Labour government’s Minister for Europe, said last week in an interview
that “the Conservatives' willingness to isolate Britain on the world stage would make achieving crucial foreign policy goals much more difficult
” and that “the Conservatives continue to obsessively put their Eurosceptic agenda ahead of the interests of British businesses and are also prepared to threaten the vital work we do with our European allies on defence issues.
Strong words, but at least they are not ambiguous…
Contrast Mr Hague’s words in the speech which seem to contradict what he said in an interview with the Financial Times
in which he said the Conservatives had made “a strategic decision
” not to pick a fight with Europe if they won the election, that a Tory government "would try to repatriate powers in employment and social law and fundamental civil rights from Brussels, if other EU member states insisted on a treaty change" and warned that there were limits to his tolerance of EU integration and suggested that future battles lie ahead over defence and any proposals to create a European Monetary Fund
(editor's note - more on that later).
It would appear therefore that the Tories are starting to admit publicly that they recognise the importance of Britain’s role in the European Union, but yet still have nothing more than words to express it. The danger is that once (and if) they do get into power, these words will just become political manifesto material and forgotten and buried once elected.
If that is indeed the case, perhaps we are not living is such strange times…