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A sleepwalk into danger overseas

18 January 2013

The PM needs to be more careful, says Paul Vallely

We are now halfway through the current Parliament, and the Prime Minister has started looking forward to the next election. He has begun to live dangerously.

Today, David Cameron will make his much-heralded speech on the future of Britain's place in Europe. It was supposed to happen next week, until the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, icily pointed out that it would coincide with celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the treaty that sealed the post-war reconciliation of France and Germany. That would not have been the day for Mr Cameron to be rattling his sabre about leaving the EU, if he does not get his way over diluting its relationship with the UK. "Blackmail" one of Mrs Merkel's colleagues called it.

Mr Cameron has got himself into a tight spot. The eurozone crisis - and the unrelenting hostility of our europhobic press, which never mentions that half Britain's trade is with the EU - have created an increasingly contemptuous public attitude. At the next election, Mr Cameron could, fatally, lose votes to the surging UK Independence Party (UKIP). Many Tory backbenchers share its strident world-view.

His solution is to hijack a new EU treaty on revised eurozone-governance structure, in order to force other nations to loosen the rules on immigration, criminal justice, the working-time directive, and more. The result would be put to the British public in a referendum.

This is a perilous tactic. It is unlikely that the EU will agree to rewrite treaty terms as radically as Mr Cameron would like. The process will antagonise our European partners. But it will also leave UK eurosceptics discontented; for they will be satisfied with nothing less than an in-or-out referendum. That could set in train an unpredictable sequence of events, which could force Mr Cameron - or another Tory leader, if he is ousted in the process - to offer the public a vote on quitting the EU.

Business leaders last week signed a letter saying that this risky political strategy could damage economic confidence and discourage foreign investors from setting up in the UK. The United States, in an unusually bold diplomatic intervention, has warned Britain that part of the US/UK special relationship comes from London's being a "strong voice" in Europe.

But it is not just on Europe that Mr Cameron is sleepwalking towards disaster. His decision to involve the British military in war in Mali seems just as impulsive and high-handed. Ignoring the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, he has committed British aircraft to the French expedition to fight Islamist rebels in the African deserts. Perhaps he believes horribly familiar intelligence suggesting that Mali could become a haven for al-Qaeda. Perhaps he just sees it as an easy way to placate France, whose President has been scathing about what he has called Mr Cameron's "à la carte" approach to Europe.

An attempt to curb the Malian Islamists may be a good thing. These are the people who recently sentenced a woman to 100 lashes with an electric cable for giving a drink of water to a male stranger, in breach of their notion of sharia. But there has been no debate about the decision, or whether the military tactics being deployed - bombing towns - are the right ones. It will last only "a matter of weeks", the French Foreign Minister says. But history suggests that such affairs are often much more costly in time, money, and lives than initial blithe optimism suggests. Western involvement may also create the very kind of opposition that it sets out to counter.

Mr Cameron needs to take a deal more care. We do not want the unravelling of the single market; nor can we be sucked into another unwinnable war.

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