Britain Divided Over E.U. Treaty

Dec 12, 2011
Originally published on December 12, 2011 3:33 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the last few days, there's been one, big topic of conversation in Europe: What is Britain up to? On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron stunned his European partners by vetoing a plan to save the euro. Cameron returned home to find deep divisions. Some hailed him as a hero; others accused him of isolating Britain, and jeopardizing efforts to avert a massive financial disaster.

Well, today, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Cameron appeared before Parliament to explain himself.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The huge and frightening drama that's been playing out in Europe for months switched today to London. On a cold winter's afternoon, Britain's parliamentarians packed the House of Commons. They came to hear Cameron report back.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

JOHN BERCOW: Statement, the prime minister.

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (In Unison) Here.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

REEVES: The house was in volatile mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Talking, laughing among themselves)

BERCOW: Order. The house must calm itself, taking whatever medicaments are required for the purpose. And the prime minister's statement must and will be heard.

REEVES: Cameron began to give his version of what happened in Brussels.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

CAMERON: Let me take the house through the events of last week. At this council, the eurozone economies agreed there should be much tighter fiscal discipline in the eurozone, as part of restoring market confidence.

REEVES: Those markets have forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek bailouts. They're driving Italy and Spain to the brink. They've begun targeting prosperous and stable eurozone nations and are driving up their borrowing costs, too. Restoring confidence is not easy.

In Brussels, the Germans and French wanted to do that by writing strict, new rules into existing treaties that apply to the entire European Union. Cameron explained he'd only agree to that in return for safeguards for Britain's huge financial sector. He didn't get them.

Britain doesn't even use the endangered euro. But Cameron exercised a veto, leaving Europe's leaders to cobble together a different treaty among themselves. His veto is causing a crisis in Britain's relations with Europe, and placing great strain on his relationship with elements of his own coalition government. Cameron's government depends on a partnership with the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, is Britain's deputy prime minister. Clegg's described the veto as bad for Britain. Today, he was a no-show - a point pounced on by the opposition Labour leader, Ed Miliband.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

ED MILIBAND: Mr. Speaker, can I start by thanking the prime minister for his statement, and we all note the absence of the deputy prime minister from his normal place.

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Vocalizing in agreement)

REEVES: Miliband derided Cameron for exercising the veto without doing anything to protect British interests.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

MILIBAND: It's not a veto when the thing you wanted to stop goes ahead without you.

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Vocalizing in agreement)

MILIBAND: Mr. Speaker, that's called losing.

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Vocalizing in agreement)

MILIBAND: That's called being defeated.

REEVES: The speaker had to weigh in again.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

BERCOW: Order! Order! I'm worried about the health of the honorable member for Mid Sussex. He must calm himself. Have a lie down, if necessary, while we listen to the leader of the opposition.

REEVES: Right now, Cameron is the toast of many fellow conservatives who are pressuring for a referendum to take Britain out of the European Union, or at least to loosen ties. Opposition to the EU is growing among the British public. However, Cameron insisted that he does want Britain to remain an active E.U. player.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

CAMERON: I'm absolutely clear that it is possible to be both a full, committed and influential member of the European Union ...

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Chortling)

CAMERON: ...but to stay out of arrangements where they do not protect our interests.

REEVES: Miliband, the Labour leader, wasn't impressed, accusing Cameron of an historic error.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF COMMONS SESSION)

MILIBAND: We will rue the day this prime minister left Britain alone without allies, without influence. It is bad for business. It is bad for jobs. It is bad for Britain.

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Vocalizing in agreement)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.