x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Europe bids UK goodbye and good riddance after euro zone crisis veto

David Cameron, the British prime minister, faces anger at home and on the continent after refusing to join a Germany-led fiscal-union plan.

The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, left, tells BBC presenter Andrew Marr of his bitter disappointment at UK prime minister David Cameron's decision to veto changes to the European Union treaty.
The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, left, tells BBC presenter Andrew Marr of his bitter disappointment at UK prime minister David Cameron's decision to veto changes to the European Union treaty.

BERLIN // Europe has bid Britain farewell, and not an especially fond one at that, following last week's EU summit at which David Cameron, the British prime minister, cemented his country's isolation by refusing to join the other 26 members in a fiscal union imposed by Germany.

European politicians and commentators have been venting their fury not just at Mr Cameron's brusque rebuttal of the plan to solve the euro crisis, but at decades of British obstructionism in EU affairs, and their message is simple: good riddance.

Even at home, Mr Cameron is facing criticism. British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg warned yesterday that the country risks becoming an international "pygmy" after Mr Cameron vetoed a new European Union treaty.

The leader of the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats spoke out despite a poll showing public support for Mr Cameron's decision.

Mr Clegg had at first publicly backed the prime minister after Friday's EU summit, but he broke ranks yesterday and said he had told Mr Cameron the outcome was "bad for Britain".

"I am bitterly disappointed by the outcome of last week's summit, precisely because I think there is now a real danger that, over time, the United Kingdom will be isolated and marginalised within the European Union," Mr Clegg told BBC TV.

In Germany, politicians have ditched their traditionally diplomatic tone in foreign matters, and are lashing out at Britain.

"It was a mistake to let the British into the European Union," said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German member of the European Parliament for the pro-business Free Democrat Party, which belongs to centre-right coalition of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a politician from the opposition Greens party, said: "Cameron is a coward." The prime minister had shied away from confronting euro sceptics in his Conservative Party and had "manoeuvred himself into a populist corner," said Mr Cohn-Bendit.

The summit has merely confirmed what had become increasingly evident over the 18 months of the debt crisis engulfing the euro zone. Europe is ruled by a German-French alliance, in which economically mighty Germany is the dominant partner, and Britain is fast becoming as irrelevant to the affairs of the EU as Switzerland is.

But Mr Cameron lessened Britain's already waning influence and undermined his own negotiating position by sniping at the euro zone's crisis management, and by choosing last week's summit to demand concessions for Britain, when everyone else was focused on rescuing the single currency.

At the EU summit in October, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, exasperated with the lecturing and criticism from British officials, had told Mr Cameron: "You have lost a good opportunity to shut up." He added: "We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings."

So it came as no surprise that Mr Sarkozy and other euro zone leaders were in no mood last week to grant the UK yet another of a long series of opt-outs that have so often watered down EU decisions over the years.

They slapped down Mr Cameron's demand for a blanket veto right over EU decisions on financial services - a move with which he had hoped to protect one of Britain's key industries. In return, he used Britain's veto to obstruct the wish of the other EU members to amend the bloc's governing Lisbon treaty to allow closer fiscal union among the 17-nation single currency area.

Now the euro members and nine of the EU members who haven't joined the single currency are to agree to a separate treaty on fiscal discipline, in a bid to regain the confidence of financial markets.

It is a watershed for Britain's role in Europe. Many commentators are saying it could even herald the beginning of the end for the country's membership of the EU.

One EU official described Mr Cameron's negotiating tactics as "clumsy". That might be putting it mildly. The British leader was humiliated at the summit. He gambled and lost, and returned across the Channel with nothing other than evidence of an uncertain future for Britain in Europe, even though it is the third-largest economy in the EU and still has a huge amount to contribute to Europe in terms of foreign policy know-how, global ties and a knack for pragmatic policy management.

The country has no obvious alternative alliances that could offset the loss of its influence in Europe. The much-vaunted Anglo-American "special relationship" is becoming irrelevant in the world of giant economic blocs, and the empire has long gone. Britain stands very much alone.

"Bye-bye, England," wrote Bild Zeitung, Germany's best-selling tabloid, in a headline on Saturday. "Europe will go on without you." In a commentary, the paper wrote: "Your front pages today will probably be full of German 'panzers,' the 'Fourth Reich' and all the rubbish you write when you're cross with us.

Mr Sarkozy has emerged as the winner of the summit. He has sidelined Britain in Europe and reinforced France's role as the driving force in EU affairs in partnership with Germany.

The summit was also a success for Mrs Merkel, but there are downsides for her. She had wanted all 27 EU members to sign up to a fiscal union, modelled on the German system of legally enshrined budget discipline.

She has also had to sign German taxpayers up to bigger contributions to euro rescue measures, and she may have lost Britain as a partner in countering the French predilection for protectionist policies.

Mrs Merkel has harnessed the rest of Europe into a straitjacket of German-style austerity for the next decade.

Germany can cope with it, because its strong export industry can offset declines in domestic demand. Whether the rest of Europe can remains an open question.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae