Britain ponders new status as odd man out

December 9, 2011

In the hours after their prime minister’s solo refusal to sign a pact aimed at easing Europe’s mounting debt crisis, Britons were left wondering Friday what his stand might mean for their country.

British news media did their best to supply instant interpretations of events at the two-day summit in Brussels, with headlines ranging from the Sun’s “Who Do You Think EU Are?” to the Guardian’s “Cameron and Europe: the English outpatient.” The Daily Mail homed in on “le snub,” when the French president refused to shake Prime Minister David Cameron’s hand.

“I think I did the right thing for Britain,” Cameron told the BBC, defending his decision to effectively torpedo an attempt to get all 27 members of the European Union to support treaty changes for greater fiscal union. “We were offered a treaty that didn’t have proper safeguards for Britain, and I decided it was not right to sign that treaty.”

Britain, which is a member of the European Union but outside the 17-nation euro zone, has long had a complicated relationship with the bloc, often dividing along party lines with the most anti -European sentiments found on the sidelines of the Conservative Party.

Cameron, who heads the Conservative Party, said that signing on to the pact — and the wave of regulations it would entail — would threaten London’s financial district, also known as “the City.”

The Financial Times questioned the efficacy of his move, however, declaring in an editorial that “an empty chair resolves nothing” and warning that “forcing the eurozone to set up its own parallel union” would not protect the City. “The new club’s 17 members could still force through big changes to the single market if they acted as a bloc,” it said.

Analysts said Cameron’s decision reflected pressure from euro-skeptics at home as much as considerations of Britain’s financial interests.

“The U.K. can’t get beyond where its people are, and the people are very euro-skeptic at the moment,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “Tactically, I think this is the hand he had to play.”

Politically, Cameron will now have more freedom to focus on domestic issues, Niblett added, saying that he could also slap down the euro-skeptics in his party clamoring for further distancing from the European Union by saying: “You wanted me to be bold. I did it. Now back off.’”

William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, appeared on various media programs Friday to defend the government’s “sensible” decision while insisting that it would not leave Britain isolated — a word heard a lot here Friday.

Initial political reaction largely broke along party lines. Conservative lawmaker Mark Reckless told the BBC that Cameron was “as good as his word” and suggested that Britain could become more like Switzerland, which is not an E.U. member.

Opposition Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, meanwhile, criticized Cameron in his blog and said that the summit’s outcome was “looking increasingly worrying for the UK.”

Writing in the Guardian, columnist Michael White cautioned that isolation could prove illuminating.

“Europe, for all its follies and failings, has become a scapegoat for weaknesses that are really our own,” he wrote. “We may be about to rediscover that awkward truth.”

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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