LONDON – Unlike some in Britain’s Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron has not previously given the impression of being obsessed with Europe. He demonstrated no enthusiasm for the European Union, but he appeared clearly less exercised by its supposed iniquities than many Tories are.
This view of Cameron’s position is now difficult to sustain. His long-gestating speech on Europe, although containing elements that many might share, also sows the seeds for a prolonged and acrimonious debate – and not just in Britain. Conservatives in the House of Commons (and in the wider party) want to be reassured that their leader shares their antagonism for the entire European integration process. They have not forgotten or pardoned his “treachery” in refusing to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, signed by his predecessor, Gordon Brown. With his speech, that reassurance may now have been given.
Cameron, of course, faced a difficult task with his party, which required a statement from him of his European policy. Cameron then had to find something appropriate to say. He needed to placate Tories and his domestic critics while avoiding the economic and political havoc that would be caused by announcing an imminent referendum that might lead to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. The time that he took to decide what he would say attests to the difficulty of squaring that circle.
In fact, as Cameron’s speech made clear, his solution to his dilemma – to buy himself short-term peace from his critics at the expense of potentially making his (and Britain’s) problems more intractable in the long term – is hardly new. It was already clear that Cameron wanted to push any possibility of a referendum into the most distant possible future. The idea that he would seek to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership is also familiar from his earlier speeches and interviews.
Now that position has been bluntly and uncompromisingly expressed. The demand for far-reaching change in the structure and functioning of the EU, including repatriation of powers to Britain, is a major new demarche at a difficult time for Europe.
Cameron has said on several occasions that he wishes to avoid a referendum revolving around the simple choice of continued EU membership on the basis of the current terms of membership. Already some are claiming to discern in his European policy the makings of an heir to Harold Wilson, another famous “renegotiator” of Britain’s terms of membership in the then-European Community who went on to win a referendum on Europe.
Britain’s relationship with European integration has been a difficult one, regardless of which party has been in power (Wilson, after all, was a Labour prime minister). This was inevitable from the outset, owing to Britain’s deep and irreconcilable disagreement with virtually all other EU member states on the fundamental issue of pooling sovereignty.
Essentially, the British point of view has been that a loose confederation of nation-states cooperating on trade is as much Europe as the UK needs. But Britain joined the European Community, not just the free-trade area that Cameron now apparently wants.
Nonetheless, the undertow of Euro-skepticism in British politics has never diminished and was evident in Cameron’s speech. Even the supremacy of European law in defined areas was accepted only reluctantly by Britain, and long after many others had done so. Indeed, in his speech, Cameron could not resist a passing shot at the European Court of Justice.
Britain has made major positive contributions to Europe, particularly with respect to the single market. But it is no exaggeration to state that whenever Britain has perceived an opportunity to wage a war of attrition against the European supranational project, it has done so, opposing any substantial increase in the EU’s competences or resources. Given that this position reflects the British public’s attitude toward the EU, it is not surprising. But it nonetheless distresses other member states, particularly those, like Germany, that recognize the great benefit of having a country with a strongly pro-free trade position and a deep commitment to the rule of law play an important role in the EU.
The prolonged period of renegotiation now proposed by Cameron implies high costs for both sides. For starters, it creates a source of deep and prolonged uncertainty at a time when the eurozone crisis already has called into question the EU’s long-term health, if not its survival.
Moreover, Cameron’s strategy seems unlikely to lead to an outcome that satisfies anyone. If it is intended to be a negotiation that takes place in the context of broader treaty talks, it may not happen in the foreseeable future. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, among others, seems to doubt the need for a new treaty, which would require the unanimous support of the member states – some of which are sharply opposed – to enter into force. Indeed, Cameron recognized this explicitly in his speech, so the new treaty to embody a “new settlement” for Britain may have to be negotiated with all member states as a separate exercise.
Part of this negotiation apparently would entail a repatriation of powers, requiring the consent of all EU members – and making the conditions under which Cameron’s renegotiation is supposed to take place both legally and politically uncertain. Many European politicians would view a member state’s repatriation of competences as a totally destructive precedent, and thus would oppose it resolutely.
The net result is that it seems highly probable that any attempted achievement of a “new settlement,” including repatriation of competences, will make it much more difficult for Britain to remain in the EU than would be the case if a straightforward “in/out” referendum were held now. So, far from reassuring anyone (including Tory Euro-skeptics), Cameron’s stance heralds a new era of turbulence and uncertainty for Britain and its European partners.