Election day is looming in Britain. The country's membership of the EU is being wielded around, a policy weapon on the battleground of votes. But as weapons go, it is shiny but blunt: polls suggest that the question of Europe is far from top of the list of the average Brit's voting priorities.
Even so, for the Conservatives, EU membership has turned into a toxic question in recent years. In 2006, David Cameron told his own Conservative party that to win elections in the UK, one must “stop banging on about Europe”. His Eurosceptic backbenchers have largely ignored him, pushing him to publicly question the UK's EU membership and distance himself from the Brussels 'machine'.
A 'diplomatic irrelevance'
With UKIP snapping at their heels, are the Tories deliberately avoiding the EU limelight in the election run-up? Cameron has been conspicuous by his absence during negotiations between EU leaders and the Russian authorities over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, for example.
So far, it has been Germany and France who have taken the lead in negotiations with Vladimir Putin, which have resulted in sanctions against some of Russia's most powerful figures, and another fragile ceasefire, agreed on February 12th. The strongest message yet that the UK is willing to move beyond its quiet diplomacy strategy is the deployment of 75 British personnel to Kiev to build the capacity of the Ukrainian army. Perhaps this move is an attempt to make up for Cameron's silence thus far, but it remains a small, unilateral one, dislocated from the main EU talks.
The Prime Minister finds himself on the defensive following comments made by a high-ranking military official (Richard Shirreff, second-in-command at Nato until last year) and the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, which suggest he has become a 'diplomatic irrelevance' and is little more than a 'bit player' in EU foreign policy. A recent report by the House of Lords committee on foreign affairs further claims that the UK government 'misread the mood' in Russia and has been a bystander when it comes to mediating the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels.
A Tory party-leader who is reluctant to engage with Europe is hardly a new phenomenon. But few incumbents pass up the chance to play the statesman when votes are at stake. Why then, has Cameron chosen this moment to back off?
Perhaps it is merely a question of avoiding a discussion of domestic defence policy. The Conservatives will be loath to draw attention to the UK's diminished capacity in terms of military strength in general and Russia in particular. Military spending in the UK has dropped significantly during this government's term, to the point where it risks falling below the 2% target set by Nato.
A decline in influence?
The UK Foreign Office's expertise on Russia has also declined in recent years, says the House of Lords report, with a lack of language skills and cultural knowledge limiting its ability to think strategically.
Or maybe Cameron fears that his MPs and potential Tory voters won't take kindly to him being seen as part of the EU team ahead of May's big vote. For some time now, Cameron's has been happy to play the brave David to Brussels' Goliath, refusing loudly to capitulate to its 'unreasonable' demands. Or at least appearing to. After weeks of threats and warnings, he nonetheless failed to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission.
Similarly, despite his “challenging in every way possible” the UK's €2.1 billion budget top-up bill, and Chancellor George Osborne claiming to have halved it, the amount was paid in full last December. These incidents, no doubt stemming from a build-up of domestic pressure, have left relations with his EU counterparts strained, and have done little to help the UK's international profile.
It is hard to say at this point whether Cameron is the one choosing not to come to the party, or the one who hasn't been invited. Most likely, it is a combination of the two. Cameron may have deliberately kept his distance from the Ukraine talks, but he may also have been sidelined, with the Franco-German powerhouse growing tired of his recent antics. And so, he finds himself tiptoeing along a tightrope: on one side 'the continent' that he is not quite ready to leave behind, on the other the island that will decide his party's fate.
The pre-election period is full of preening and posturing from all sides, but if Cameron wins, he will have to face up to the reality of what it means to be an EU outsider.