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Cameron’s bold move

Last Wed­nes­day, the UK’s Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron held his long awaited EU speech. He set forth vis­ion of a union focused on and lim­ited to the com­mon mar­ket only. That means no polit­ical union, no fiscal union and no defence union. Fur­ther­more, he impli­citly called for a revised EU treaty which he wants to put up for a ref­er­en­dum to the Brit­ish people in his next term, should he win the gen­eral elec­tions sched­uled for 2015. Expec­tedly the speech drew reac­tions from polit­ical lead­ers from all over Europe. Some were  harsh rhet­or­ics, such as the French For­eign Min­is­ter Laurent Fabius say­ing he’d roll out the red car­pet for busi­nesses flee­ing the UK. Oth­ers were more con­struct­ive, such as Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel who said that she’d be will­ing to make a fair compromise.

So what motiv­ated Cameron to call for these far-reaching changes? Over the past year, Cameron has been under attack from within his own party as well as from out­side it. This speech should be seen as an attempt to sat­isfy the Euro­scep­tic wing within the Con­ser­vat­ive party by call­ing for the ref­er­en­dum. Sim­ul­tan­eously it keeps on-board the more mod­er­ate voters who think Cameron should improve the EU, not aban­don it.

Cameron’s dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the EU is widely shared amongst Brit­ish voters. In the most  recent Euroba­ro­meter sur­vey of Novem­ber last year, 47% per cent of Brit­ish respon­ders said they had a neg­at­ive image of the EU, versus only 17% with a pos­it­ive one. The Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter should there­fore be applauded for address­ing the people´s dis­con­tent with the status quo. He is show­ing cour­age by present­ing his vis­ion des­pite the troubled European envir­on­ment, which is still reel­ing from the eco­nomic downturn.

The strength in his strategy lies in the fact that the ref­er­en­dum will func­tion as lever­age over other EU mem­ber states. Cameron can simply say ‘give me what I want or else I’ll make sure the ref­er­en­dum ends in a Brexit’, a Brit­ish exit from the EU. Bri­tain leav­ing the union would be dis­astrous for the EU as a whole as it would be the fail­ure of the grand idea of a united Europe. Con­trary to the French remarks men­tioned earlier, European states will go to quite some length to keep Bri­tain in. After all, a Brexit could very well spike a new eco­nomic reces­sion as fin­an­cial mar­kets would lose con­fid­ence in pan-European cooper­a­tion. But by say­ing the ref­er­en­dum should only occur after treaty change, Cameron can avoid a ref­er­en­dum alto­gether and stay in the EU should other mem­ber states not be pre­pared to rene­go­ti­ate the Lis­bon treaty. From a glance, it seems like Cameron posi­tioned him­self in a win-win situ­ation. It is how­ever a risky approach.

First of all, Cameron has been vague about the changes he seeks. He wants the EU to focus on the internal mar­ket only and to limit reg­u­la­tion com­ing from Brus­sels. Yet it is pre­cisely the internal mar­ket which in order to cre­ate an equal play­ing field requires these reg­u­la­tions in the first place. Besides, the EU can­not make any laws by itself. It always requires a qual­i­fied major­ity of mem­ber states to approve bills. Brus­sels can only do what the mem­ber states allow them to do. Cameron men­tions he wants less inter­fer­ence on policy fields such as the envir­on­ment, labour hours, social policy and crime. But he hasn’t men­tioned any spe­cific pro­grams he wants to end. Until Cameron gets clearer and more expli­cit about what change he seeks oth­ers will struggle to give him what he wants.

Secondly, now that Bri­tain has spoken out about the EU other mem­ber states now have an incent­ive to write up their own wish list for a new treaty. Cameron’s all-or-nothing strategy is risky when the res­ult will most likely be a com­prom­ise of all 27 EU mem­ber states. It remains to be seen if other European lead­ers are able to give Cameron what he wants, given the diver­gence on mem­ber states´ vis­ions for the EU.

The third and final prob­lem with Cameron´s strategy is that it’s very short on time. His plan is to hold the revised treaty up for a ref­er­en­dum in the first half of his next term; again, should he win one. Elec­tions are held in May 2015 at the latest, mean­ing the EU mem­ber states have only two to three years to strike a deal if Cameron´s sched­ule is to be met.
Pre­vi­ous EU treaty revi­sion dis­cus­sions have shown this takes many more years, if not a dec­ade. This means the ref­er­en­dum won´t occur until the second half of Cameron´s second ten­ure at the soon­est. Cameron’s sched­ule is doomed to fail, leav­ing dis­ap­poin­ted those voters who soon want to have their say. Fur­ther­more, in a few years’ time the EU is likely to still be  attempt­ing to resolve the Euro­zone crisis. This leaves the EU engaged on two fronts: the Euro and treaty revi­sion. This over­burdened agenda could very well harm Europe’s power to effect­ively address both issues adequately.

Cameron’s speech increases uncer­tainty about European integ­ra­tion at a time when news­pa­pers are filled with euro woes already. But it is cru­cial for other mem­ber states to empath­ize with the Brit­ish people. Ignor­ing the feel­ings of 60 mil­lion UK cit­izens would be unwise. Neither should EU mem­ber states only rene­go­ti­ate Britain’s pos­i­tion in the EU.

Instead, Cameron ought to strike a com­prom­ise deal with other gov­ern­ment lead­ers on EU reform for all. For this, Cameron needs to get clearer on which spe­cific changes he seeks.  Other states can then move on from mere rhet­or­ics to put­ting for­ward their pro­pos­als. Then, decis­ive action needs to be taken to sim­ul­tan­eously address the Euro­zone crisis and treaty reform.

– Quint Hoekstra

Dis­claimer: This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished as ” Cameron’s bold move” on January 31, 2013 on The European Student Think Tank, a PB cooper­a­tion partner.


(Featured photo: Attribution Guillaume Paumier, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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