A question of leadership

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I understand that the Prime Minister has now written to the President of the European Council with the list of his demands. He has apparently told an unhappy Donald Tusk that unless these demands are met by the Council representing the other 27 Member States of the European Union then he will recommend that the UK leaves the EU.

This is not a debate that will benefit Wales and neither will it help address the challenges facing us as a nation. We need to be building a consensus for change across the EU which will help invest in a green economy and sustainable growth and can bring peace and stability to a region that all too often seems to be in turmoil. Never before have I felt so strongly that a UK Prime Minister is not speaking on my behalf and neither is he speaking on behalf of Wales or acting in the best interests of Wales. He is entirely careless of the needs and interests of Wales. He sounds like like an English Prime Minister and acts like a nineteenth century potentate.

David Cameron has a reputation in Brussels of being a poor diplomat. He attempts to create unnecessary arguments with our closest friends and allies in order to placate a Conservative Party that is riven by an unpleasant and sometimes chauvinistic nationalism. Most people in Brussels regard this as tiresome and many wish that he had the strength and courage to take on and defeat those loud strident voices at home. Almost all are now accustomed to, and resigned to, this sort of megaphone diplomacy where the UK position on any given issue is determined by the prejudices of newspaper editors and dependent on domestic political positioning rather than a principled and far-sighted approach to the issues facing the continent and the Union.

I remember being in Strasbourg and Brussels during the week following Cameron’s late night and apparently almost accidental use of the UK veto in December 2011. Council of Ministers is always a more measured environment than the intensity of Strasbourg but even there I was told in graphic language how Cameron had isolated the UK, not simply by his actions, but by his approach and attitude to an issue which was critical to the management of the Eurozone crisis – “ he kicked us when we were down and needed help”. UK diplomats shook their heads and wrung their hands shrinking back into a role of apologetic observers rather than their preferred role of princes in a modern concert of Europe.

In conversation with people in Brussels I am struck by their patience, calmness and their stoicism in the face of the increasingly bellicose tone of these speeches and statements. Cameron has been asked time and again for a clear statement of the UK position with the Commission taking the not unreasonable position that it is difficult to negotiate anything without knowing and understanding what the UK wants to achieve. Only so much can be gleaned from reading the Sunday papers.

I regret to say but on Monday and again yesterday he has spoken with a vulgarity and pomposity, making demands on our friends rather than engaging in an intelligent conversation about the issues we face as Europeans. He would have achieved far greater reform and a different approach to many issues from immigration to the operation of the internal market had he approached the matter with a different tone and less vivid language.

The Balance of Competences launched with a grand fanfare by William Hague was supposed to provide the basis for this renegotiation. Hague forecast that it would set the context for the last general election and that all parties would look to it when writing their manifestoes. The great minds of the Foreign Office were set to work to examine the relationship between the UK and the EU and to report on where competences should properly lie. Unhappily for Cameron the resulting document found that, broadly, the balance of competences was in the right place. It found that the EU did those things best done at a European level and the UK did those things best done by a member state. With those findings the document was buried so deeply that it’s difficult to find on Google.

The impression is given that this is an operation that is driven from Downing Street and that their fixer, Tom Scholar, has at least tried to learn some lessons from the previous disastrous interventions. But he may have learnt the wrong lessons. In Cameron’s odyssey around EU capitals the whole enterprise has been framed in aggressive language and attitude calibrated to appeal more to Tory backbenchers than the more sensitive European diplomats for whom only an occasional nod or nuance is required. Again he is not the team player and does not know how to be a team leader.

At the same time there has been little, if any, engagement with the devolved administrations. The UK Government is quick to assert its right to speak on behalf of the UK in these things pointing out that foreign affairs are reserved matters. However it is more than a little clear that this whole process has a significant impact on all of the devolved administrations. For instance, if Cameron wishes to give “national parliaments’ the right to become more involved in the process of legislation (or more accurately to object to legislation) then will this also apply to those subjects such as agriculture or environment which are devolved and where the UK Parliament acts essentially like an English Parliament?

The four baskets of demands vary from the straightforward to the bizarre. The UK Government makes much of its demands over ever-closer union but does not appear to have read the end of that famous sentence which appears in the preamble to the current founding Treaty of the EU.

RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity

Many of us wish that the UK Government had not only read but had understood the meaning of that statement before they started work on the draft Wales Bill. What on earth is wrong with a union of people (not governments) where decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen? Perhaps it’s time for a UK Balance of Competences?

But perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that it has entirely abrogated any sense of British leadership in Europe. Losing Helmut Schmidt yesterday reinforces the sense of a continent lacking in leadership. These are difficult times, a fractured Middle East is at the heart of conflicts on our doorstep from the Ukraine to northern Africa. We face enormous global challenges. This week’s UN report on climate change has been drowned out of the news and the cost of the financial crisis is still being counted not only in capitals and financial centres across the world but in the homes of millions of people who face increasing uncertainty. All of this screams out for leadership and a vision of the future. Whatever we may make of Cameron’s baskets, one thing is clear and unarguable. They are not a vision of a different EU and not a vision of active European leadership in an uncertain world.

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