photo source: rferl.org

by Giles Marshall

Britain may not be a member of the Eurozone, but the arguments over the Greek crisis have as many ramifications here as elsewhere.  While Prime Minister David Cameron must, of necessity, take a back seat in these troubling times for Europe, leaving the headline work to be done by President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, he is keeping an eye out for what all this might mean for Britain’s own Europe referendum, due in 2017.

Mr. Cameron had barely a month in office as a triumphantly re-elected prime minister before his party’s euro-phobia asserted itself.  The putative ‘No’ campaign has acquired as its chief strategist one Dominic Cummings.  Mr. Cummings is a former adviser to Michael Gove, a radical and divisive Education Secretary, and is no fan of Mr. Cameron’s centrist conservatism.  Once believed to be behind Mr. Gove’s more controversial education statements and ideas, Mr. Cummings has already made his presence felt at the top of the ‘No’ campaign, and it is not giving much comfort to the broadly pro-European leadership of the Conservative party.

Mr. Cummings has made a call – repeated by prominent Tory politicians such as London Mayor (and newly minted MP) Boris Johnson – for two votes in the 2017 referendum.  The idea is that voters could vote ‘no’ in a first referendum on Mr. Cameron’s own bid to stay in Europe on newly negotiated terms, but then have a second referendum in which to determine the nature of a British exit.  The euro-sceptics have come up with this wheeze because it seeks to make voting ‘no’ a less risky option.  British public opinion at present largely favours continuing membership of the European Union, so the task for the ‘No’ campaigners is make the referendum look less definitive.

The two referendum idea comes at the same time as Mr. Cameron’s euro-sceptic MPs are busy back-pedalling on whether a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum would really be the end of the debate.  One senior Tory backbencher, Bernard Jenkin, spent some time recently in an interview on BBC News’s “Hard Talk” programme providing the various conditions in which he would accept a ‘Yes’ vote.  They were considerable and certainly suggested that the ‘No’ campaigners would not give up merely because one referendum might go the wrong way.

Which brings us to Greece.  There is not much that you might have thought would bind the radical leftists of Greece’s ruling Syriza party, and the right-wing traditionalists of Britain’s euro-sceptic Conservatives, but they have at least found a common enemy in the technocrats of Europe.

Right-wing commentators and politicians are now lining up to provide a critique of the way the European Union’s leaders are handling the Greek crisis.  Clive Crook in the business friendly Bloomberg View was scathing about the “sustained, self-righteous, ruinous and dissembling incompetence” of the European leaders, singling out Jean-Claude Juncker for particular ire.   Former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont has also piled in.  He has defined his post-office career by his euro-scepticism and has been a leading voice on the right expressing sympathy for the Syriza predicament, blaming much of the present mess on the failure of the euro zone project as a whole.

For the euro-sceptic right in Britain, the Greek crisis is the expected failure that a common currency was always going to produce.  While the ramifications of Greece’s ‘No’ vote remain unclear for the Eurozone as a whole – though many see it as the beginning of an end game – the European project itself looks as if it is under strain.  ‘No’ campaigners in Britain are on the losing side of the European argument at the moment, but if Greece leaves the Eurozone they may find that much new support for their cause washes up in its wake.

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