Prime Minister David Cameron's government has gone well beyond the traditional British wait-and-see approach to Europe. It now views European initiatives either sceptically or downright negatively. Furthermore, many of its MPs are demanding the return of powers to Britain that its predecessors accepted as part of the acquis communautaire. The ‘Fresh Start’ group of Conservative MPs has produced a report of several hundred pages detailing the powers that it wants returned to Britain. It proposes that a referendum be held to approve whatever Brussels will concede. Since there is little likelihood of Brussels agreeing major concessions, the recommended response would be withdrawal. A House of Commons motion to hold a referendum promptly on reclaiming powers from the EU was supported by more than 110 MPs, a sixth of the parliament’s members.
Viewed from continental Europe, the strongest proponents of a united Europe might see a British decision to join Norway in the European Economic Area as a welcome way of disposing of a perennially awkward partner. Britain would remain part of the single market but would lose the power to block EU actions when unanimity is required, or to prevent consensus by mobilising support for what the British government sees as its best interests.
David Cameron's domestic foreign policy is apparently to avoid clarifying Britain's relationship with Europe. Doing so would threaten the support on which his coalition government depends in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, his Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has launched a detailed audit of how EU policies affect Britain; it is intended to find ways to establish a relationship with the EU that involves 'less cost, less bureaucracy and less meddling in the issues that belong to nation states'.
"The strongest proponents of a united Europe might see a British decision to join Norway in the European Economic Area as a welcome way of disposing of a perennially awkward partner"
To give in to anti-European demands now would cause Liberal Democrats, the strongly pro-EU coalition partners of the Conservatives, to leave the government. This would force an early general election when the economy is ailing and the Conservatives are trailing well behind the opposition Labour Party. The chances are slim, though, that the prime minister will be able to avoid a domestic clash over foreign policy during his present term of office and the consequences of this would spill over into EU deliberations.
At the forthcoming European Parliament elections in June 2014, the Conservatives will have to defend the 23 seats they won in the last EP election against a strong challenge from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which won 13 seats then by campaigning on a platform of British withdrawal from the European Union. Since the survival of the present British government will not be at stake, anti-EU Conservatives will feel free to vote for UKIP so as to send a message in favour of withdrawal. At the same time, pro-EU Conservatives can vote for the Liberal Democrats to support a party that wants Britain to remain in the EU. And those Conservatives who care little either way about Europe may stay home because of their disillusionment with Cameron's leadership.
"David Cameron's domestic foreign policy is apparently to avoid clarifying Britain's relationship with Europe"
Since UKIP needs a swing of little more than five percent to finish ahead of the Tories in the EP ballot, there seems a real possibility that the Conservative Party might finish third behind a revived Labour Party as well as behind UKIP. The Labour opposition is playing up the government's divisions on Europe; it does little to defend the EU in principle or practice. The prospect of winning office in 2015 has made Labour leader Ed Miliband avoid pledging a referendum on withdrawal if he were to become prime minister. This is not only prudent to maintain relations with Brussels but also because it makes it much easier for him to solicit Liberal Democrat support if their votes were needed to make Miliband prime minister in the next British Parliament.
The Conservative whips are likely to find it increasingly difficult to discipline their backbench MPs. Since so many grassroots Conservative Party members hold anti-EU views, they can put pressure on Tory MPs to vote to return powers from Brussels.
Constituency party members can ask aspirants for the party's nomination whether they support a referendum on the EU. If the answer is yes, this is a gain for the UKIP cause. If the answer is unconvincing, UKIP can threaten to cost the Conservatives the seat by nominating a candidate who campaigns on an anti-EU platform. At the UK’s 2010 general election the Conservatives would have won an absolute majority in the House of Commons if they had gained all the votes that were cast for UKIP candidates in 21 marginal seats.
"Whenever in the years ahead a proposal comes before the European Council to expand the EU’s existing powers, the British government can point to the 2011 Act as tying its hands"
Concessions that the British government has already made to anti-EU sentiment may yet create a crisis affecting the European Union as a whole. Britain’s 2011 European Union Act of Parliament requires a national referendum on any transfer of power from the UK to the European Union. The Act was an attempt to soothe the bitterness felt by anti-EU Conservatives who were denied a British referendum that would almost certainly have torpedoed the Lisbon treaty. It does not limit the referendum requirement to treaties; it also applies to 'certain decisions already provided for by the TEU and the TFEU if these would transfer power or competence from the UK to the EU'. In addition, before the UK can vote in favour of specified proposals to the European Council the government must first have secured their approval by both Houses of Parliament, and an Act of Parliament is required for UK approval of a number of other EU decisions.
Whenever in the years ahead a proposal comes before the European Council to expand the EU’s existing powers, the British government can point to the 2011 Act as tying its hands. It can propose that the Council either amend the proposal to meet its domestic requirements, or it can give Britain an opt-out. If there is a consensus that British demands cannot be met, and a Qualified Majority Vote is sufficient, a measure can be adopted notwithstanding British objections. This would trigger a demand for a British vote to void what was decided in Brussels and a European constitutional crisis that would of course be welcomed by anti-EU MPs in Britain.
Enhanced co-operation allows member states with common goals to adopt policies that do not bind all member states. This has ended up serving as a means for the UK to sit out initiatives it doesn’t find to be in its own interest, and has allowed other countries to proceed without encumbrance. Jean-Claude Piris, the former chief legal expert at the Council of Ministers, has shown in a carefully argued submission to the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee that this offers Britain an alternative to a strategy of confrontation. It would give France greater prominence within EU deliberations and leave Berlin without any other major power as a partner. But the removal of the United Kingdom from major EU developments would offend the purists of European integration, who remain deeply committed to a uniform as well as an ever-closer union.
"[Enhanced co-operation] has ended up serving as a means for the UK to sit out initiatives it doesn’t find to be in its own interest, and has allowed other countries to proceed without encumbrance"
Treaty amendments that require unanimity create still bigger threats of an explosion. So far, the Stability Treaty has been safe from British challenge because the United Kingdom has not signed it. However, Clause 16 of the treaty states that within five years necessary steps shall be taken to incorporate the substance of this treaty into the EU's legal framework. When that time comes, it will doubtless be harder than ever to reconcile the treaty's enhancement of the EU's powers over all member states and the current British opposition to any transfer of powers that affect it.
To describe the British lack of foreign policy for foreigners as an Anglo-Saxon peculiarity ignores the fact that Britons are not the only Anglo-Saxons in the European Union. Germany’s Constitutional Court is now hearing cases that claim that the German government has agreed in Brussels to measures that are inconsistent with the democratic principles of the Federal Republic's Basic Law. The Karlsruhe court's recent annulment of an act governing the allocation of seats in next year's Bundestag elections shows that it will not hesitate to take decisions quashing what the Chancellor has approved. Even if the Constitutional Court doesn’t bite, its readiness to bare its teeth is enough to justify the German government in joining the British government in emphasising the domestic constraints on any further EU policies that favour European integration over national policymaking.