BRUSSELS – British Prime Minister David Cameron's long-awaited speech on Europe, to be delivered in the Netherlands, may well mark a turning point with respect to Britain’s position within the European Union. Any attempt by the United Kingdom to repatriate powers to Westminster is likely to be a drawn-out and cumbersome negotiation. As previous experience has shown, internal discussions on constitutional competences – essentially political navel-gazing – can distract attention from the far more pressing issues of economic growth and jobs.
Attempting to revisit major parts of the acquis communautaire (the body of EU law), and picking and choosing the bits of which the UK approves, could set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, it could lead to piecemeal legislation, disintegration, and potentially the breakup of the Union. However attractive repatriation may seem on the surface, it would involve long and complex procedures – with no guarantee of a favorable outcome.
Ultimately, of course, whether to repatriate competences or exit from the EU are decisions for the British government and the British people to make. But it is my strong belief that full UK membership is in the interest of the British and Europe alike. The single market benefits the British economy enormously, and the EU remains by far the UK’s biggest trade partner, accounting for almost 50% of British exports.
In a globalized world, it is not in the UK’s interest to downgrade to some kind of second-class EU membership, as this would merely weaken its own influence in Europe and beyond. Certainly, Britain’s friends recognize this. In recent days, the United States has rightly warned that a possible referendum in the UK could mean that the country turns inward, while Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has said that a British exit from the EU would be a “disaster.”
Leading British business figures, too, have cautioned Cameron that he risks destabilizing the UK economy inadvertently if he seeks a wholesale renegotiation of EU membership. Their voices, however late in the day they have come, should be heeded.
The eurozone is integrating more deeply and rapidly not on a whim, but out of sheer necessity. The UK has chosen to remain outside the monetary union with a clear opt-out from the common currency. So, while the Cameron government’s support for deeper eurozone integration is welcome, the eurozone cannot and will not be shaped from outside and according to British interests.
The UK is not in a position to block the other EU member states from deeper integration, given most other member states’ political will to move forward. Indeed, last year’s negotiations on the “fiscal compact” should already have demonstrated to Cameron the difficulty of exercising the so-called national veto.
Still, the UK has played a leading role in designing key EU policies, including measures concerning the single market, overseas development aid, trade, and climate change. UK leadership in these areas has been highly appreciated – and would be sorely missed should the British decide to leave. In the field of Justice and Home Affairs, for example, the UK has so far played a major role in shaping EU policies that all member states must adopt in less than two years.
But the Cameron government appears to be preparing to opt out of these policies completely. Surely it cannot be expected that the EU institutions and the other 26 member states will stand idly by while the UK opts out of more than 130 of those measures – in essence re-erecting national borders in the fight against cross-border crime – and then seeks to rejoin a select few that it considers to be in its “national interest.”
Attempting to repatriate competences from the EU may play well in Britain’s notoriously Euro-skeptic media and parts of the Conservative Party, but I would question whether it is truly in the UK’s long-term interest.
The EU is much more than a set of rules governing the internal market and the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. It is a unique and historic project that has unified the European continent. Nation-states have pooled sovereignty voluntarily, because they believe that, together, they are stronger. I believe in the UK’s role in helping to lead this project – in Europe’s interest and its own.
I suspect that Cameron is playing a dangerous game for purely tactical, domestic reasons. I believe him when he says that he wants the UK to remain a member of the EU. But he increasingly resembles the sorcerer’s apprentice, who cannot tame the forces that he has conjured – forces that want to leave the EU for ideological reasons, to the detriment of the British people.
January 1, 2013, marked 40 years of British membership of the EU. The Union is likely to become even more significant in the next 40 years, which is why the UK should remain fully committed to shaping its future.