Cameron's anti-Europe decision: was it a good one?

Britain Prime Minister David Cameron gives a press conference after talks gathering European Union (EU) heads of State or government during an European Union summit at the EU headquarters, early on December 9, 2011 in Brussels.

LONDON — Call it a veto, call it something else: the aftershocks of David Cameron's refusal to participate in the EU's attempt to rescue the floundering euro zone continue to rattle the Europe's political tectonic plates.  It also seems to have severely rattled his coalition government. 

Cameron appeared before Parliament this afternoon to make a statement about last week's EU summit. Usually the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, would be seated just beside him, but this afternoon he was not in the House of Commons. His absence spoke volumes about the potential rift in the coalition caused by Cameron's decision. 

The Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European party in Britain and Clegg, whose mother is Dutch and whose wife is Spanish, is about the most Europeanized MP in Parliament.  His absence will have tongues wagging about how long the coalition will last.

That that will not bother Cameron's supporters but it will worry pro-Europeans. The fall-out from last week's events has amplified tribalism over Europe to a level that British politics hasn't seen in a decade.

Words by the hundreds of thousands — vituperative, sarcastic, vehement — have poured out of the veins of commentators over the last three days.

There are no shades of gray in the articles still spewing forth. Headlines like "Cameron's Act of Crass Stupidity" jostle up against others like, "EU is Angry Because We Were Right."

More: British PM Cameron to defend EU treaty veto in parliament

On the right, the backing for Cameron is unanimous. Janet Daley, at The Daily Telegraph is a perfect example.

Daley, like many Cameron supporters, is caught in a bind. The plan that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the others have agreed to put in place calls for balanced budgets and strict deficit limits. You would have thought that was something she would praise. After all, the Conservatives are trying to eliminate Britain's structural deficit. They are failing on current figures, but they're still trying. But when something comes from Europe it has to be wrong, at least according to the right wing of the Conservative party.

"Is this what those eastern European countries that have so recently been liberated from Soviet domination dream of: the freedom to submit their tax and spending plans to a claque of unelected commissars in Brussels?"

Bureaucrats, yes, but commissars? Daley was on the radical left when she was an undergraduate at Berkeley. She must know there is a difference between a commissar and an unelected bureaucrat. But no insult is too absurd when the anti-European right is in full cry.

More measured praise for Cameron and criticism of the EU came from historian Niall Ferguson — living proof that not all Harvard professors are liberals.

In an article in The Times and reprinted at The Daily Beast, Ferguson praises Cameron and then attacks Merkozy's grand plan for solving the euro zone crisis via a new agreement on debt and deficit rules.

"This, in sum, is the founding charter of the United States of Europe." But Ferguson doubts the US of E will ever be born because of those bureaucrat/commissar types Daley has identified.

More: Requiem for a euro zone bailout

"The Eurocrats have exchanged a Stability and Growth Pact — which was honored only in the breach — for an Austerity and Contraction Pact they intend to stick to. The United Kingdom has no option but to dissociate itself from this collective suicide pact, even if it strongly increases the probability that we shall end up outside the EU altogether."

Economist and journalist Will Hutton, Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, provided the view from the left in yesterday's Observer. Hutton notes the Conservative Party's long history — two centuries and counting — is "built on its cultural attractiveness to parts of the English middle class ... rather than on its political judgments, which have, over the centuries, been almost continuously wrong, especially in foreign policy."

Hutton, then lists the major Tory mistakes going back to the days when George III was the king.

"It was wrong to resist revolutions in France and the US; wrong to go slow over abolishing the slave trade ... wrong to embrace appeasement in the 1930s; wrong to contest the decolonisation of India. The British right's instincts — jingoistic, imperialistic, anti-progressive and isolationist — have consistently led this country into calamities."

Hutton could have mentioned it was a Conservative Prime Minister that prevented Britain being one of the founder members of what has become the EU. It has been Conservative Prime Ministers — Margaret Thatcher and John Major — who kept Britain apart from the euro and from the Schengen agreement which facilitates free movement of people across national borders.

These Conservative politicians weren't acting out of cynicism. They were acting out of principle. Their view is that the EU exists as a "common market," a free trading area, no more, no less. Britain needs to take a leading role to protect its interests in that area; Beyond that there is no need to buy into the rest of the "European Project."

The problem is that the whole trajectory of EU history has been aimed at fulfilling the European Project: the political integration of nations into something like a confederation — what Niall Ferguson exaggerates only slightly in calling a "United States of Europe."

France and Germany have been moving in this direction for more than half a century.

Britain has always been one or two steps to the side on the deeper political questions that shape the EU.

Terrible mistakes were made in the creation of the euro. Political mistakes. Now to save the single currency and the European and global economy, political action must be taken. Yet at the moment of maximum crisis, Cameron simply acted like the man Hutton describes as, "saturated with prejudices he has never cared to challenge." If ever there was a time to put those prejudices aside, last week's summit was it. Cameron simply couldn't.

As furious as Hutton, Cameron's Liberal Democrat coalition partners and even a few of his own party feel about the British Prime Minister's refusal to participate in the creation of new fiscal stability rules to govern the euro, his decision is not entirely a bad thing.

More: Sarkozy slams UK Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to opt out of euro fiscal union

First Cameron's actions accurately reflect British public opinion, if the results of a snap poll in the ultra-right Daily Mail is to be believed. Sixty-two percent of the British public supported Cameron's actions at the Brussels summit, and almost 50 percent would like to leave the EU altogether.

Those numbers don't seem out of line. There has been a relentless anti-European tone in Britain's overwhelmingly right wing press for decades. That press is like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh combined. Its headlines scream anti-EU bile at street level from tens of thousands of news stands. The attitude bleeds across party lines. More than a few Labour party voters detest "eurocrats" every bit as much as the Conservative rank and file.

Public opinion acts as a tremendous drag even on a pro-European prime minister — something David Cameron is not.

Second, and possibly more important, Cameron by withdrawing from the talks may make it easier for the rest of the euro zone countries to quickly agree to the terms and fine print of the new fiscal arrangements. Merkel says she wants this done by March and, as we have learned in recent months, what the Chancellor wants she usually gets.

Britain has always acted as a drag anchor in Europe. Now its European partners can move forward more easily.

Maybe the markets see it that way as well. Based on Friday's equity rally, they didn't seem bothered by the British departure. 

There will be other fits of heavy breathing over the euro before Christmas. Standard & Poor's may be about to downgrade a number of euro zone countries including France. A couple of European banks are reported to be on the verge of going bust or nationalized. Already, today Moody's has indicated that Friday's deal doesn't go far enough to stem the crisis, Bloomberg reports.

But whatever the direction the next bad news comes from, the fact that the least European member of the EU has recused itself has to be a good thing for Europe.

It's also a good thing for Cameron, he is riding high, and his supporting scribes are prepared to go to metaphorical war for him. Whether it is also a good thing for Britain it's too soon to tell.