Cameron's reckoning is at hand. © Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/Press Association Images

What Cameron won't say about Europe

We should hope that Cameron pursues a sensible agenda and that his legacy is continued British membership of a reformed EU
May 20, 2015

Among the many surprises of the UK general election was the failure of Europe to ignite as an election issue. Tony Blair made an early and effective intervention setting out the international costs for Britain of quitting the European Union. That was about it. David Cameron punctuated his stump speeches with the odd reminder of the Conservatives’ referendum promise but I do not remember a TV debate or public encounter when Europe flared into life.

This, and the failure by Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, to win a seat, tells us something. Europe is not regarded as a priority issue by the large majority of the British public and when given a choice, people will opt for six or seven issues before arriving at Europe in a list of concerns.

Of course, if you ask the public whether they want a referendum on Europe most will say yes, but then they would do so on many issues. Yet just because the public is more bothered by other things does not mean that people will fail to pass judgement on what irritates them about the EU or brush aside the opportunity to make their protest on whatever else is worrying them at the time. That is the danger of a plebiscite. It begins by being called on one issue and ends up as a verdict on a host of others.

Cameron justifies the referendum because of the public’s “wafer thin” support for the EU and the need to address this. But he stops short of saying that he will definitely make the case for Europe and campaign for a vote to stay in. This perplexes other heads of government. He is hardly encouraging them to make painful concessions to him if they cannot even rely on him at the end of the process to campaign for a positive vote.

But this holding back by Cameron is unacceptable for a further reason. As Prime Minister he knows full well that it is fundamentally in Britain’s national interest to remain inside the EU and that this is not altered by whether or not the platitude of an “ever closer union” remains in the text of the treaty. He must be aware that the risks he is taking could turn the United Kingdom into Little Britain, shorn not just of Scotland but adrift from Europe as well.

No one in the EU thinks this would be a good idea, either for Britain or for Europe as a whole. That’s why Cameron has secured the right to be heard. It would have been unacceptable for other member states simply to tell Britain to shut up or get out. They have engaged instead. But Cameron should not misunderstand this goodwill. If his negotiating position is underpinned by an unrealistic agenda he will come away with little achieved. Extreme demands supplied by his party will be rejected out of hand. A sensible and measured list of reform proposals stands a much better chance.

The non-starter demands being canvassed by his backbenchers include scrapping free movement of people (an unbreachable founding principle of the EU along with the free movement of goods, services and capital) and giving each member state a veto on any EU legislation that it does not like.

This idea really is a nonsense. Would we be happy if French, Germans or Spaniards could veto, for example, any further move to liberalise the single market or to repeal redundant pieces of European legislation long past their sell-by date? Of course we would not. Across the board national vetoes are a recipe for stasis: a standstill EU that would soon roll backwards and start to unravel.

More sensible proposals concern welfare benefit claims by EU nationals living away from home. This is not a widespread problem but concern is not confined to Britain. And there is support for national parliaments being more involved in the EU’s legislative process, alongside the European Parliament.

There is another area of controversy, however, where negotiation will be more important and much harder going. This concerns the respective rights of member states who are in the eurozone and those who are full members of the EU but, like Britain, do not use the single currency.

These questions concerning the relationship with the eurozone go to the heart of the EU’s future direction and are the nub of Britain’s real challenges in Europe.

The eurozone and its ministerial euro group is becoming “core Europe”—the key forum for decision-making about Europe’s economy, finance and banking sector. Britain is not directly part of this policymaking but is hugely affected by it, not least because the City of London is Europe’s financial hub. George Osborne, as Chancellor, is keenly aware of the dangers of Britain being excluded. He has previously insisted on voting mechanisms being created that prevent the euro group from caucusing against the interests of non-euro member states on banking regulation. But this is just one of many policy areas relevant to the integrity and future development of the single market.

Which leads to the last issue on Cameron’s agenda—the extent and timing of treaty change. He seems to think that the Lisbon Treaty, which gives the constitutional basis of the EU, can be changed in advance of a British referendum. This is hardly practical for 2017, let alone 2016. Yet he has a wider dilemma: shoot for too little change and he will disappoint the diehards in his party, open up the treaty too far to re-negotiation and he could be in for a shock.

There are plenty of people waiting in the wings to press for a far-reaching revision of the treaty that reflects their own designs for more integration and stronger governance for the EU, with fewer opportunities for opt outs and light-touch co-ordination. Cameron should be careful what he wishes for.

There is a body of opinion including the former European Commission President, Jacques Delors, and head of the liberals and democrats group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, who are arguing for two-tier EU membership, full and associate. The latter would give us negotiated access to Europe’s internal trade but exclude us from full representation and corresponding voting rights at EU level.

For Cameron’s anti-Europeans this would be Christmas come early. But for Britain’s businesses which need full British involvement to shape the future of the single market, for those who enjoy Europe’s social rights and others who want to be part of Europe’s standard-setting in the rest of the world, this outcome would be a disaster. On sufferance, we would have access to Europe’s market but not at the top table where all the decisions that affect it are made. What started out as a gleam in a Tory Eurosceptic eye could yet turn into an unprecedented setback for Britain. That’s why we should hope that Cameron pursues a sensible agenda and that his legacy is continued British membership of a reformed EU, not Britain floating somewhere alongside it.