David Cameron’s negative approach of demanding a renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership terms and putting this to a referendum is a cloud hanging over this week’s European elections, warns Professor Dimitris Papadimitriou. This is a strategy that could backfire spectacularly.
This week’s elections to the European Parliament are overshadowed in Britain by the rise of UKIP and David Cameron’s strategy of renegotiating the terms of EU membership, with the intention of putting these to a national referendum. Cameron is seeking a wholesale review of its relationship with the European Union, prior to an ‘in-or-out’ referendum during the next Parliament.
The main thrust of Cameron’s demands is now starting to emerge. Britain is happy with a slimmed-down version of the Single European Market, but the Government wants to reduce EU intrusion elsewhere. So it would be ‘Yes’ to the free flow of goods, services and capital, but ‘No’ to the free movement of people and ‘No’ to some other key areas of the EU’s activity such as asylum and immigration and the regulation of employment.
Importantly, Britain has already opted out of the EU’s new flagship policies – the Fiscal Compact and the Banking Union – in fear of undermining the prominence of the City of London.
At first, European governments viewed Britain’s strategy as an irritant at best and a potential calamity at worst. The ‘Four Freedoms’ of the Single European Market – goods, services, capital and people – are sacrosanct across the Union. To unpick current arrangements, a wholesale EU treaty reform may be required involving all 28 countries of the Union acting unanimously. Attempting this would open up a can of worms with unforeseen consequences.
As demonstrated by the recent visit of the German Chancellor to London, Cameron’s strategy relies heavily on German support. Angela Merkel is a fellow Conservative. With France in economic trouble, Germany wants an economically powerful Britain to remain engaged with the European project.
The theory goes that ‘they will need us too much to let us go’. With so much on her plate already, Merkel will be willing to treat Britain as a ‘special case’, rather than risk the entire renegotiation of the EU treaties. This way, Britain will get its way ‘on the quiet’.
But Cameron might have misjudged the changing climate in Europe. This week’s European elections – in which the UK chooses 73 of Europe’s 751 MEPs, the largest national contingent after Germany and France – are likely to confirm the increasing dissatisfaction of European citizens with the way in which the European Union is run. With its economy in trouble and its politics poisoned by the rise of extremists and neo-populists, the European Union is in desperate need of ‘big ideas’.
The fallout from the Eurozone crisis has produced a widespread consensus that economic governance within the club needs to be substantially strengthened. But greater EU intrusion into national economic policies can no longer be justified without democratic accountability.
Popular perceptions of a European Union run by unelected bureaucrats and bankers will, no doubt, register in Berlin where the Social Democrats are now in coalition with Angela Merkel. Indeed, last November the German Chancellor told MEPs of her vision of the future: the EU Commission will become a government, the Council of Member States an ‘upper chamber’ and the European Parliament would become more powerful.
In this context, Cameron’s demands for a renegotiation of British membership may offer Germany and others the perfect pretext to pursue a redrafting of EU treaties towards a more federal outlook. In his recent speech at the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, a leading candidate for the Commission’s Presidency, Guy Verhofstadt, made it clear that patience with Britain amongst its European partners is running out. Europe’s pressing problems cannot be held hostage by the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage’s issues with Romanians.
If Cameron’s strategy backfires, setting in motion an even deeper integration agenda for the EU, the position of the British government may become impossible. It will be faced with a very unwelcome choice. Either accept ‘more’ Europe and risk alienating an increasingly Eurosceptic audience at home, or effectively place Britain at the very margins of an increasingly integrated Europe, thereby threatening the UK’s vital economic interests.
With scarcely anybody making a positive pro-European case to the electorate, the prospect of winning a referendum on EU membership seems doomed. The British political elites are sleepwalking towards the exit door. But it won’t be them who pay the price.