Last week, in a long-awaited speech, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear how he sees the future role of the UK in Europe.
If his Conservative Party wins the 2015 national elections, Cameron will try to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU and then put that new settlement to the British people in an “in or out” referendum by the end of 2017.
The Tory leader stressed that he wants the UK to remain a key player inside the EU but only if and when the union will manage to become more flexible, adaptable and open. Cameron formulated five principles on which a new EU should be built and the way to get there: The internal market has to be completed and strengthened; the EU must accept that not all member states want the same level of integration; there needs to be a thorough examination of what the EU as a whole should do and which powers should flow back to the member states; national parliaments should have a bigger and more significant role in holding the EU accountable and, finally, all new arrangements must work fairly for those in and out of the eurozone.
All of these points had been mentioned before by Cameron and others but never combined with the prospect of a possible “Brexit,” a British exit from the EU. As expected, the speech did no go down well in the rest of Europe. Reuters summarized the verdict on Cameron’s plan as “selfish, ignorant and dangerous.” Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister, now leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament and a strong defender of a more integrated, federal EU, blamed Cameron for “playing with fire” because Cameron “can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations and in so doing is raising false expectations that can never be met.” Others criticized the British prime minister for playing on populist sentiments, for instance by suggesting that you can have an internal market without high environmental and social standards or without detailed rules and regulations.
On the other hand, Andrew Moravcsik, EU specialist at Princeton University, tried to calm everybody down by calling Cameron’s speech a smart tactical maneuver to silence the virulent Euro-skeptic right-wing of his own party, to peel support from the extreme-right and popular UK Independence Party and to split the Labor Party on the referendum issue. According to Moravcsik, in the end Britain will stay in the EU because no serious politician actually favors pulling out.
Although many of Cameron’s critics definitively have a point, to me it all sounded a bit too predictable. Besides, I am afraid most missed or downplayed a crucial argument made by the British prime minister. In order to resolve the present euro crisis and prevent a new one, it is inevitable that the EU will further integrate, economically and politically. This poses a serious challenge to those EU member states that are not part of the common currency and/or don’t want a more federal Europe. In my view, Cameron is correct when he proposes a new, reorganized EU that should be acceptable to both those countries that accept more coordination and centralization and those, like the UK, that don’t.
Because of all the populist rhetoric and the tactical ploys in last week’s speech, many Europeans feel that Cameron is battling for Britain, not for Europe, as Timothy Garton Ash, one of Britain’s leading intellectuals, pointedly put it. Cameron’s problem is that he has created the impression that he is not really interested in a new EU treaty but just wants a better deal for the UK.
Unfortunately, that is not only Cameron’s problem. The EU itself would greatly benefit from an honest and profound debate about its future based on the premise that a “one size fits all EU” is over and done with. Cameron’s intervention contained some good ideas for that indispensable search for a new, indeed more flexible EU. My fear is that the ambiguity of the speech has made that quest look unattractive and strewn with pitfalls to many Europeans. What a pity!