Never has a British general election caused so much concern in Europe. And never has the UK appeared closer to the EU exit door.
David Cameron’s decision to appease Eurosceptic forces in England by withdrawing in 2009 from the pan-European political federation of conservative and Christian democratic parties (EPP) has annoyed Angela Merkel and other centre-right leaders.
Ed Miliband barely bothers to turn up at gatherings of the centre-left so UK non-participation in European party politics is seen as just long-standing remoteness from Europe. The same holds true for the nationalism and ‘partitionism’ of the SNP that fills most European politicians with dismay.
The SNP claims to be a European party but has few working links with mainstream continental political movements save ultra-nationalist and separatist parties – and the Greens. Most of progressive Europe cannot comprehend why the politics of destroying the union of British nations could enhance the union of European nations.
And most dislike plebiscites. But Marine Le Pen has made clear that if Labour fails to win power and head off Cameron’s Brexit referendum – the inevitable result of Labour MPs being routed in Scotland much as progressives were replaced by Tories in Canada when Quebec separatism was on a similar roll in the 1980s – then she will demand a Frexit referendum in France.
Europe right now is centrifugal and under pressure to dis-unite into competing nationalist political entities. The dis-union of Europe will only be accelerated if the SNP destroys Labour’s chances of replacing Conservative rule.
But for European leaders such questions – even when discussed over ambassadors’ dining tables in London – are kept private. The iron rule is not to get involved in elections as the next occupant of 10 Downing Street takes the UK’s seat at EU council meetings so insulting a potential future leader by siding too openly with his opponents is deemed unwise.
Hence the storm in a tasse de thé provoked by the now notorious note on what Nicola Sturgeon said or did not say to the French ambassador to the UK. That is the small change of diplomatic interchange, second hand note-taking, and politically motivated leaks.
Nicola and the Tories
To any experienced diplomat it is obvious that Sturgeon detests the Tories with a passion greater than that of many London Labourites. But that does not mean it would not suit the SNP to see Cameron in power, stumbling towards a Brexit referendum in which Scotland would vote differently from England and thus open the way to Scotland insisting on its own future inside the EU.
Cameron’s Brexit manoeuvres are about a profound constitutional crisis in the British state which is visibly falling apart as the English Tory rule is based so narrowly on London, southern England and nodules of wealth elsewhere.
It can only profit the SNP to see this crisis accelerated by a return of Cameron to No 10 even if personally no SNP leader likes the Conservatives. In that sense the #frenchgate farrago did reflect SNP interests even if Sturgeon is sincere in her denunciation of the motives behind an obvious party political leak and in her vehement contempt for the very notion of doing a deal with the Tories.
European capitals are in a blind funk over the prospect of an In-Out referendum in the event of David Cameron returning to No 10.
Cameron’s 2013 pledge of a Brexit plebiscite has been repeated so many times he cannot possibly wriggle out of it if he stays as Prime Minister. Ed Miliband, of course, has faced down many in his own shadow cabinet and stated there will be no such referendum if he becomes Prime Minister.
The ghost of Perot
Both Cameron and Miliband face their own Ross Perot syndrome, so-called after the third candidate in the 1992 US election who took away enough Republican votes to guarantee a victory for Bill Clinton over the first George Bush.
In England, the Ross Perot effect is represented by UKIP which is taking away votes from the Tories. In Scotland, the SNP is a tartan Ross Perot as the chances of a Labour victory look dim if the solid phalanx of Scottish Labour MPs is as shredded by the SNP as opinion polls suggest it may be.
In London there is a complacency amongst pro-Europeans that, as in the Scottish referendum, it will be all right on the night and British citizens will never vote to leave Europe.
They assume the Eurosceptic press owned by off-shore proprietors like Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere will convert to pro-Europeanism. It assumes that the fusion between EU membership and the toxic theme of immigration will fade away as an issue.
Above all, its assumes that UKIP, which won 25 per cent of the vote in last year’s European and local elections in England, will dwindle in size and voting impact.
These are large assumptions. Instead, many EU capitals now privately think that, if it comes to a UK referendum, a vote to leave is not just possible but probable. If Labour cannot muster enough MPs to form a government then the Brexit plebiscite will happen and by the end of the decade the UK as such will no longer be part of Europe.
In that sense the SNP will not only decide the outcome of the election but the wider question of Britain staying in Europe. ‘Vote SNP: Get Brexit’ may not be a slogan that resonates but it is close to the truth.