Cameron also suggests that the single market and not the euro as a single currency is the foundation of the EU. But this flies in the face of the Lisbon treaty’s confirmation that the euro is the currency of the Economic and Monetary Union and therefore essential to the acquis communautaire. The UK signed up to this, even though it has an opt out on the euro itself.
Euroscepticism is so strong in the UK because of hesitant and contradictory leadership statements over the last 40 years. The true nature of the contract with Europe has never been put to the British population, so now the real situation is that chickens are coming home to roost.
David Cameron’s speech not only confirmed Britain’s history of half-hearted EU membership but added a new dimension to it. He has decided to play Russian roulette, with the bullet in his revolver being the termination of UK membership of the EU. None of his predecessors ever went so far. When Harold Wilson renegotiated in 1975, just three years after joining he obtained minor concessions. But he never attempted to blackmail his partners by suggesting that the UK might leave the then EC. Even Margaret Thatcher’s “I want my money back” approach, did not hold the other EU members to ransom.
The result of Cameron’s brinkmanship is that the UK is entering a phase of dangerous uncertainty that’s likely to last for some years, as Nick Clegg, who leads the governing coalition’s smaller Lib-Dem party has pointed out. Cameron mentions three crucial problems for the future of the EU: the eurozone crisis; competitiveness and the widening gap between the EU and its citizens. It would be hard to disagree with this summing-up, but providing there’s enough political will, the EU’s present treaties are in fact sufficiently flexible to meet all these challenges.
These points are not central to Cameron’s concerns. For he hopes for a renegotiation with the other 26 (soon to be 27) member states to arrive at a different and looser relationship with the EU. Basically, he wants to revert to the period prior to British membership when the UK was leading the so-called “Outer Seven” as a counterweight to EC’s “Inner Six” made up of France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries. As a student of European history, though, he must surely be aware that it was precisely the political and economic decline of the UK in the 1960’s that made membership of the European customs union, later to be the EU’s internal market, an absolute necessity.
So far, David Cameron hasn’t made specific proposals for change to the existing treaties. The only thing we know is that Cameron wants to modify the treaties in such a way that the eurosceptics in his party, and in the UK as a whole, will end up in a democratic minority. But the so-called five principles his speech mentioned are no guide to concrete treaty texts.
When presenting his call for re-negotiation with the “EU” as if it were a foreign country, Cameron erred, because all member states must agree with any modification of the existing treaties. The UK must negotiate within the EU and not with the EU as a kind of external force. Unlike at the time when it originally negotiated membership, the UK as a full member is in a very different position. The EU system is based on a concept of give and take, and is a balance of mutual rights and obligations. This has always been the essence of the integration process, so the idea that Britain can obtain unilateral concessions applicable to the UK alone is out of the question.
Cameron errs on another count. He wants to maintain an open and free internal market but with far fewer Brussels regulations, and invokes inter alia Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in support. But this is another misconception because none of the rules creating the internal market were adopted without approval by the Council of Ministers, and above all by the Competitiveness Council, of whose existence he seems unaware. If overregulation by Brussels could be turned back that would be most welcome, but it is the member states that are largely responsible for any such changes which moreover do not require treaty modification.
At the same time, many of the European Union’s rules are indispensable for the internal market to be free of administrative restrictions on trade. When the 2008-2009 banking crisis broke, strong action based on EU legislation was needed to avoid discrimination against foreign, and notably British, banks on Irish territory as the result of unilateral subsidies that benefitted only Irish banks. It would be a bizarre outcome if Cameron’s crusade for more flexibility in the EU resulted in a European market place that was less free than before.
There are many other legal and political uncertainties that flow from David Cameron’s Europe speech. Even supposing that all the EU member states agree to a modification of the treaties along the lines he suggests, the chance of one or more national parliaments failing to ratify can certainly not be excluded. In that case, the existing treaties would prevail, with the result that the UK remained bound by them.
There is now a very real possibility that the EU could end up trapped in an impossible political maze, and all thanks to Cameron’s initiative. This would be a black scenario not only for the UK, but for the whole EU.