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David Cameron is taking unnecessary risks in both Europe and Mali

2013 January 18
by Paul Vallely

We are now half way through the current parliament and the prime minister has started looking forward to the next election. He has begun to live dangerously.

Today David Cameron was due make his much-heralded speech on the future of Britain’s place in Europe. It was originally supposed to happen next week till the German Chancellor Angela Merkel icily pointed out that coincide with celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the treaty which sealed the post-war reconciliation of Paris and Berlin. Not the day for Mr Cameron to be rattling his sabre about leaving the European Union if he does not get his way over diluting the relationship between the UK and the EU. Blackmail, one of Mrs Merkel’s colleagues called it.

Mr Cameron has got himself into a very tight spot. The eurozone crisis – and the unrelenting hostility of our Europhobic press which never mentions that half Britain’s trade is with the EU – have created an increasing contemptuous public attitude to Europe.  At the next election Mr Cameron could fatally lose votes to the surging UK Independence Party (Ukip). Many Tory backbenchers share its strident worldview.

His solution is to hijack a new EU treaty on revised eurozone governance structure to force other nations to loosen the rules on immigration, criminal justice, working time directive and more. The result would be put to the British public in a referendum.

This is a perilous tactic. It is highly unlikely that the EU will agree to rewrite treaty terms as radically as Mr Cameron would like. The process will antagonise our European partners. But it will also but leave UK Eurosceptics discontented, for they will be satisfied with nothing less than an In or Out referendum. That could set in train an unpredictable sequence of events that could force Mr Cameron – or another Tory leader if he is ousted in the process, as Margaret Thatcher was – to offer the public a vote on quitting the EU.

Top business leaders last week signed a letter saying that this risky political strategy could damage economic confidence and discourage foreign investors from setting up in the UK and creating new jobs.  The United States, in an unusually bold diplomatic intervention, has warned Britain that part of the US/UK special relationship comes from London being a “strong voice” in Europe.

But is not just on Europe that Mr Cameron is sleepwalking towards disaster. His decision to involve the British military in war in Mali seems just as impulsive and high-handed. Ignoring the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan he has committed British aircraft to the French expedition to fight Islamist rebels in the African deserts. Perhaps he believes horribly familiar intelligence suggesting that Mali could become a haven for al-Qa’ida. Perhaps he just sees it as an easy way to placate France, whose president has been scathing about what he called Mr Cameron’s “a la carte” approach to Europe.

An attempt to curb the Malian Islamists may be a good thing. After all, these are the people who recently sentenced a woman to 100 lashes with an electric cable for giving a drink of water to a male stranger, in breach of their notion of Sharia. But there has been no debate about the decision nor whether the military tactics being deployed – bombing towns – are the right ones. It will last only “a matter of weeks”, the French foreign minister says. But history shows that such affairs are far often much costly in time, money and lives than initial blithe optimism suggests. Western involvement may also create the very kind of opposition it sets out to oppose. The bloodbath in the Algerian desert at the In Amenas gasfield may well be evidence of that.

Mr Cameron needs to take a deal more care. We do not want the unravelling of the single market. Nor can we be sucked into another unwinnable war.

The Church Times

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