James Forsyth James Forsyth

Politics: Don’t let Europe’s crisis go to waste

Europe has reached a crucial crossroads, from which there is no return.

Europe has reached a crucial crossroads, from which there is no return.

Europe has reached a crucial crossroads, from which there is no return. Soon, either the eurozone countries will become even more tightly bound together or they will begin to fall apart as the most ambitious elements of the European project are abandoned. The eurozone cannot continue as it is constituted for much longer. And if David Cameron is to be credible as a Conservative leader, he must take advantage of Europe’s weakness to secure Britain’s strength.

The eurozone’s difficulty may quickly become Britain’s opportunity. Last week, Jean-Claude Trichet, the normally cautious governor of the European Central Bank, said the eurozone needed a single finance ministry, and so a common budget, to work. This requires a treaty change, over which Britain would have a veto. Cameron could, if he chose, use this moment to renegotiate our whole relationship with the European Union.

But frustratingly, Britain’s political elite hasn’t grasped the scale of the opportunity. Whitehall is not preparing itself for any coming EU negotiation. There are no teams of lawyers and diplomats locked away in the basement of the Foreign Office preparing Britain’s negotiating strategy. There should be urgent seminars at Chequers to discuss what Britain needs most from Europe — but there have been none.

Ask people across government about the issue and the stock response is: ‘There’s no point getting ahead of ourselves.’ This is a bizarre approach. A well-run diplomatic service prepares for even remote possibilities, let alone entirely predictable crises. Having been taken aback by the Arab spring, it would be a scandal if the Foreign Office was now to be caught off guard by the inevitable changes in Europe.

Among those who will discuss the question, there is a breathtakingly complacent consensus: it would be bad form, they say, to take advantage of the misfortune of our European friends to advance the British position.

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