In the early 1990s, when John Major was at war with his party over Europe, there was one issue on which, broadly speaking, he found common ground with the Euroskeptics. It was EU enlargement. Supporting expansion to incorporate the former communist nations of central and eastern Europe was the golden scenario.
“Wider rather than deeper” was the catchphrase. By expanding eastwards — so the Tories believed — the European Union would become so big that political union would be impossible. A bigger EU would evolve into a looser union of free trading nation states, with weaker institutions at its center. It was the way to put the brake on Franco-German and Benelux ambitions for ever-closer union, while widening the internal market and promoting stability between east and west. The vision of Europe that Margaret Thatcher had outlined in her 1998 Bruges speech would come into being.
In 2002, Tory European Parliament member Roger Helmer, who went on to defect to the U.K. Independence PArty (UKIP), put it like this: “Tory policy on enlargement is clear. We are in favor of it, for three reasons. First, we owe a moral debt to the countries of central and eastern Europe, which were allowed to fall under the pall of communism after the Second World War. Second, by entrenching democracy and the rule of law in eastern Europe, we ensure stability and security for the future. Third, an extra 100 million people in our single market may be a short-term liability, but long term will contribute to growth and prosperity.”
Those were the days when even Euroskeptic Tories believed the U.K. could help shape the EU into a satisfactory form. On Dec. 20, however, at a European summit in Brussels, the wheel had turned almost full circle. U.K. enthusiasm for enlargement under the old rules was in short supply. Under pressure from his MPs to limit the flow of EU migrants into the U.K., ahead of Britain’s doors being thrown open to Romanians and Bulgarians on Jan. 1, David Cameron said he would be prepared to veto the admission of new members unless new rules to limit “freedom of movement” were agreed first. With UKIP breathing down the Tories’ necks, enlargement is no longer the British government’s answer in Europe, but its No. 1 problem.
The change in the U.K.’s stance is happening so fast that even Whitehall is struggling to keep up. On the afternoon that Cameron pledged to stop further expansion unless he gets his way, the Foreign Office issued a statement wholeheartedly welcoming the EU’s decision to start accession talks with Serbia next month, stating: “The U.K. remains a strong supporter of EU enlargement to all the countries of the western Balkans, including both Serbia and Kosovo, and Turkey. Enlargement benefits the U.K.” No ifs, no buts.
While the Foreign Office sings the old tune, the reality is that Cameron is running out of road in the EU, and running out of arguments to keep the U.K. inside at all. Domestic pressures, particularly over immigration, are forcing his hand. A decade ago, hardly any Tory MPs would admit to wanting to get the U.K. out of the EU. These days, many accept it may be the way to go.
Ever since Cameron promised early this year to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017, having renegotiated the U.K.’s terms of membership, Tory MPs have placed ever more demands on him, many of which most other EU states will be very reluctant to agree to. Fundamental changes to rules on “free movement” would almost certainly be blocked by many, including Bulgaria, as the country’s president implies.
Many back-benchers are also demanding that Cameron reveal his “shopping list” of powers to be repatriated before the 2015 election and spell it out in the Tory manifesto, which he does not intend to do. The danger, he knows, is that if he makes demands and fails to deliver, then British voters could opt to leave the EU. That may be exactly the game plan of many Conservatives who have come to believe that — as with enlargement — their plans to hold back the tide will never work and that the U.K., as a result, will be better off out.
Toby Helm is The Observer’s political editor.