Attacked by Opposition, Celebrated by Conservatives Concerns Mount as Cameron Stands Firm

David Cameron's veto to EU treaty change has split the British. The euroskeptics in his party are celebrating, and most voters support the prime minister's actions. But in Monday's debate in parliament, the Conservative leader was viciously attacked by the opposition. Cameron's celebratory mood is likely to be short lived.
British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on Monday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on Monday.

Foto: Oli Scarff/ Getty Images

Loud cheers arose in the House of Commons when David Cameron stepped up to address the chamber on Monday afternoon. Members of parliament with the prime minister's Tories, the Conservative Party, euphorically celebrated their new hero, while the Labour opposition vociferously voiced their disapproval. The speaker's calls for "Order, order" went unheard in the commotion.

Britain's parliament often resembles a football stadium more than a place of civilized discourse. But in the European debate on Monday, emotions ran particularly high. In a 15-minute statement, the prime minister defended his decision to veto an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty at last week's European Union summit.

"I went to Brussels with one objective -- to protect Britain's national interest. And that is what I did," Cameron said, to the applause of Conservative members of parliament. Germany and France had demanded that the euro zone should also regulate financial markets in the future, he said. He had asked for safeguards, he said, not an "opt-out" for the United Kingdom but new rules that would have applied to all EU members. His demands were "modest, reasonable and relevant," he insisted.

An 'English Tea Party'?

Few people in parliament believed that, however, apart from Cameron's fellow Tories. One member of parliament with the Labour Party complained about the new "English Tea Party" -- a reference to the right-wing American political movement -- which had isolated Britain within Europe. Labour leader Ed Miliband was scathing in his assessment of Cameron. "You have come back with a bad deal for Britain," he said, adding that Cameron had sidelined the country for purely partisan reasons. Miliband quipped that Cameron would have to rely on the Financial Times to learn about the EU's economic decisions in the future.

The most striking aspect of the debate was the absence of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The leader of the Liberal Democrats usually sits on the bench directly behind the prime minister during debates -- but this time he had preferred not to appear. He had already sharply criticized Cameron's veto on the weekend, saying that Cameron's veto was "bad for Britain" during an appearance on a BBC talk show. Clegg argued that there was a danger that Britain would become "isolated and marginalized" within the EU, and that the veto was bad for British jobs, both in the City of London and elsewhere.

Following the fundamental dispute over a new electoral law in the spring, Britain's liberal-conservative coalition government is sliding into its second major dispute. Not that it will cause the coalition to split. The two parties' opposing views on Europe are well known -- the Conservative Party is the traditional home of British euroskeptics, while the Liberal Democrats support European integration. Both partners know what to expect from the other. Even Clegg's attack on the BBC talk show was carefully choreographed -- he had discussed it beforehand with Cameron.

Cameron Appears to Enjoy Role of Patriot

In the House of Commons, however, members of parliament loudly poured further criticism on Cameron's veto. Former Foreign Secretaries Jack Straw and David Miliband demanded to know what exactly Britain would have lost if it had supported a change to the EU treaties. After all, they pointed out, the agreement to pursue greater fiscal discipline would only have affected the euro zone. Cameron dodged the question by saying he had come to the conclusion that a change of the Lisbon Treaty would threaten the national interest more than a separate pact among the euro-zone countries.

The prime minister actually wanted to avoid coming across as self-satisfied, but it appears he simply enjoyed playing the role of the patriot too much. He repeatedly drew the comparison between his own steadfastness and what he described as the opposition's spinelessness. He also rejected warnings of a two-speed Europe and a reduction in Britain's influence within the EU as fearmongering. He said the same arguments had been made prior to the introduction of the euro, and that it is London, not Frankfurt, that remains the financial capital of Europe today.

Deputy Prime Minister Clegg only weighed in after the debate. In an interview with the BBC, he repeated his criticism of Cameron's veto. But that approach will not score points with the masses. Polls show that the majority of Brits support Cameron's position. A survey by pollster Populus found that 57 percent of British voters consider the veto to be correct. Only 14 percent believe it was the wrong move. Among the Liberal Democrats, 49 percent support the prime minister's decision. Worse yet for the Liberal Democrats, another poll found the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP), which is calling for Britain to leave the EU, has surged ahead of the junior coalition partner to take third place in the national party rankings.

Prime Minister Now Considered a True Conservative

In light of the junior partner's current weakness, it is hardly in a position to allow the coalition government to collapse. At the end of the day, the Liberal Democrats will just have to put up with the situation, yet again. But neither is there any reason for the Tories to celebrate. At best, Cameron has scored a success within his own Conservatives. He has temporarily appeased the growing number of euroskeptics in his party. One of the reasons he said "no" in Brussels because he feared he stood no chance of pushing the changes to the EU treaty that Merkel was calling for through the House of Commons. With his actions in Brussels, Cameron transformed the rebels within his party into supporters. The party leader, who had always been viewed as spineless by hardliners, is now suddenly being feted as a true conservative.

But the mood in the country could still shift if the impression grows that Britain will be threatened with economic disadvantages as a result of its isolation from Europe. In London's City, the capital's financial center, concerns about possible retaliatory acts are already being expressed. As part of the EU common market, Britain's financial sector remains subjugate to the European commissioners in Brussels. And under the Lisbon Treaty, implemented in 2009, new financial market regulations can be approved through a qualified majority of the 27 EU member states. So far, there has been an unwritten rule that Britain not be overruled on these issues. Following the veto, however, the willingness to consider London's position has, at the very least, taken a hit.

On Monday, London's euroskeptic mayor, Boris Johnson, played down those dangers, saying he does not believe that the City has reason to fear any reprisals. Others are not so sure. "Many people in the City and business … are worried about whether we have protected our national interest," said David Laws, a former chief secretary to the Treasury and a member of the Liberal Democrats. "We risk having the rules for the City and business set by other EU nations without our participation."

A remark by Germany's European commissioner, Günther Oettinger, on Monday made clear just how unpopular the British veto is in Brussels. Oettinger, a member of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, accused Britain of putting the brakes on Europe and described the British government's role as "destructive."

'We Are in the EU'

It is unclear how the British government will now behave towards the fiscal pact. Leading conservatives are demanding that the new group of the 26 other EU members should not be allowed to use the Brussels institutions as they make make decisions or act as a result of the fiscal union. That, goes the thinking, would hamper Merkel and Sarkozy's plan to give the European Commission responsibility for monitoring national budgets. Liberal Democrats like Nick Clegg call this demand "ludicrous." The economic heath of the euro zone is in Britain's interest, he argued, so the UK should not try to put a spoke in the euro zone's wheel.

Cameron said that he wanted to approach this issue in a "constructive" manner. He dashed euroskeptics' hopes that the veto might mark the beginning of a British exit from the EU. "Britain remains a full member of the EU and the events of the last week do nothing to change that," Cameron said. "We are in the EU and we want to be."