I went to an entertaining (if small) fringe meeting organised by the Foreign Policy Centre addressed by Baroness Cathy Ashton, former Leader of the House of Lords who was parachuted into the European Commission as the new EU Trade Commissioner when Peter Mandelson returned to the Government last year.
She gave a genuinely fascinating account of the negotiations at Doha (about which I readily admit I had known not a lot), but she also described how Britain is viewed in Europe and across the world. Gordon Brown is “hugely revered around the planet” (sic) for his achievements in shaping a global response to the international financial crisis and for what he is doing through the G20 process. She painted a vivid picture of reactions in mainstream Europe to the UK MEPs from the BNP and UKIP and to the strange positioning of the Conservative MEPs now that they have left the EPP grouping.
She also talked about the implications of the delays in ratifying the new EU Treaty. Ireland’s second referendum is, of course, imminent, but assuming that they do vote “Yes” there remains the issue of what the Czech Republic will do. The Czech Parliament has approved ratification, but since then the Czech Government has fallen. There were going to be early elections in November, but the Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the elections cannot be brought forward from next June and the Czech President has said that he will not conclude the ratification process until after the elections and there is a new Government in place.
Apparently, David Cameron is urging the Czech President to stand firm in his intention to delay ratification. This, of course, is something of a two-edged sword for Cameron. His pledge is to have a referendum on the Treaty, which he could presumably drop on the basis of cost, if by some chance he were to find himself as Prime Minister with the Treaty ratification safely concluded. His hotheads are pressing him to have the referendum anyway, which they want to turn into a referendum on the whole principle of EU membership. The Czech delay is emboldening this faction and there are moves to harden the Tory position on Europe at their Party Conference next week.
Europe is a far more divisive and corrosive issue for the Conservatives than it is for Labour (the Labour Party went through its own patch of divisiveness and corrosiveness on this thirty years ago – the Tories have still not got past that stage). It’s all potentially a toxic Achilles Heel for Team Cameron.