Cameron’s gamble

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David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum leaves europhiles in Britain with a choice of two unattractive alternatives: a detached ‘outer lane’ vision of Britain’s place in Europe, or leaving the EU altogether, writes Mark Dawson.

Mark Dawson is professor of European Law at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

"David Cameron’s London speech is the culmination of a long period of indecision over the position of the Coalition Government towards Europe.

Hemmed-in by an increasingly eurosceptic Conservative party on his right, and euro-enthusiast coalition partners on his left, this is the speech the Prime Minister has promised for months.

In it, he promised both to lay-out a credible negotiating position for the UK vis-à-vis other EU leaders, and satisfy domestic critics, demanding the PM to deliver on his 2010 manifesto promise to re-negotiate Britain’s position on Europe.

Unfortunately for Cameron, both of these goals seem likely to fail. In terms of re-negotiation, Cameron’s key bet is on a larger re-negotiation of the EU treaties, in which Britain could secure favorable opt-outs from key EU policies as a price for UK assent.

This approach of course is not new: acceding to new EU treaties while insisting upon ‘special conditions’ for the UK is a long British bargaining tactic going back to the opt-outs from the social chapter and eurozone secured by the UK after the Maastricht Treaty.

Cameron’s strategy, however, relies on 3 rather shaky assumptions. The first is that there will be treaty change. EU leaders are well aware of the perils of re-opening the EU treaties.

If Cameron thinks he will be successful in extracting concessions, other EU leaders are aware that plenty of other member states may wish to play this game too. The dual risk of a complicated bargaining process combined with the near certainty of failed national ratifications has led many EU leaders – Angela Merkel included - to cool on the idea of treaty reform.

As the crisis shows, a liberal reading of the powers conferred on the EU institutions by the existing treaties may be a far less risky option.

A second assumption is that Cameron will get what he wants from re-negotiation. While Cameron’s speech focused in on the single market, it was also noticeable for the almost complete lack of details over which powers the UK government would like to see repatriated.

The difficulty of course is that many powers and rules which Cameron sees as ‘excessive regulation’ e.g. increased banking or labour regulation, are seen by other EU leaders as part and parcel of what allows the single market to work. 

As the fiscal compact illustrates, other EU member states are quite capable of negotiating new treaty provisions even in the face of a UK veto. The Prime Minister may in this sense be seriously over-estimating his negotiating hand.

The final assumption is that Cameron’s referendum pledge will satisfy his domestic critics. The re-location of his speech from Amsterdam to London epitomises this speech’s true audience – British public and parliamentary opinion.

On this too, the 2017 referendum strategy seems unlikely to satisfy either the europhile left or the eurosceptic right.

For all the positive language towards Europe’s impressive post-war achievements, Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum leaves europhiles in Britain with a choice of two unattractive alternatives: a detached ‘outer lane’ vision of Britain’s place in Europe or leaving the EU altogether.

For eurosceptics, Cameron’s speech will be seen as another step in a long strategy of ‘kicking the can’ on Europe, leaving an in-out referendum to another day, when political events (including of course the 2015 general election) may make a referendum impossible.

Interestingly, Cameron’s speech singled-out many of the most cherished models of eurosceptics - the ideal of Britain as a Switzerland, benefiting from free trade, but un-subject to unpopular regulation - for particular derision.

Where eurosceptics have clamoured for clarity, this speech seems only to offer an uncertain referendum, on uncertain terms.

For those seeking reform of the EU, this speech may leave much to be desired. The statements for example that the euro crisis has accentuated the legitimacy deficits of integration, or that EU policy-making must be more firmly rooted in national parliamentary democracy, would surely find widespread agreement.

It’s a shame that these sentiments were not backed up by a vision either of how a more democratic EU could be constructed, or how the EU as a whole – rather than just the UK – could benefit from a wider re-negotiation of the EU framework.

Even if Cameron’s Europe gamble pays off in political terms, the worth of his vision to most Europeans seems decidedly limited."

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