British Chancellor George Osborne took the UK’s argument for a renegotiated relationship between his country and the EU to the capital of the continent’s strongest economy on Tuesday – promising to back a stronger eurozone if London’s conditions were met.
Osborne, making his longest and most detailed case yet ahead of a referendum likely next year on Britain’s 42-year membership of the bloc, signalled a deal in which the UK could stay in the EU, in return for guarantees of Britain’s independence from the eurozone, protection of the City of London, restrictions on benefits, and an end to ‘ever closer union’.
His speech, to the Association of German Industry (BDI), comes at the start of the month in which London will finally put its demands in writing for a new relationship with Brussels – ahead of a referendum due by the end of 2017.
Osborne, the finance minister, spoke in Berlin just after the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, reiterated her wish for the UK to stay in the 28-member bloc.
She told business leaders “We will do what we can so that Britain can stay”, without spelling out how far Berlin may seek to accommodate British demands.
Osborne was careful to pay praise the economic, and political, relationship between the UK and Germany, in a speech that followed a visit to a Siemens plant in Berlin.
Despite Osborne tweeting and name-checking his German opposite number, Sigmar Gabriel, Gabriel did not find the meeting with Osborne worth tweeting – and nor did Merkel’s official spokesman, Steffen Siebert.
And, despite twice during the speech insisting he was “for the first time […] spelling out more of the detail of the changes we need to stay in the European Union”, there was little concrete detail beyond the four well-known areas previously set out.
Those terms are due to be set out – in writing, for the first time – to the European Council President Donald Tusk in the next few weeks.
Osborne repeated the line now often used by Conservative politicians, that “quite frankly, the British people do not want to be part of an ‘ever closer union.’”
That is seen as one of the less difficult bridges to cross the forthcoming negotiation.
Less straightforward will be limiting EU migrant workers’ access to national social security and benefits systems, such as the UK’s, and safeguarding the rights of non-eurozone member states such as Britain.
One problem for Osborne – as senior EU diplomats admit – is that it has little in common with the other ‘out’ currency nations, which – bar Denmark – are likely to sooner or later join the euro.
Osborne told his audience: “What we seek are principles embedded in EU law and binding on EU institutions that safeguard the operation of the Union for all 28 member states. The principles must support the integrity of the European Single Market.
“That includes the recognition that the EU has more than one currency and we should not discriminate against any business on the basis of the currency of the country in which they reside. The principles must ensure that as the Eurozone chooses to integrate it does so in a way that does not damage the interests of non-euro members.”
He also expressed anger that earlier this year the UK was initially included in a eurozone-only bailout for Greece, “without even the courtesy of a phone call.”
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, called the speech “pathetic.” “Nothing fundamental on the table,” he tweeted.
George Osborne’s speech in Berlin today once again exposes the ‘renegotiation’ as pathetic. Nothing fundamental on table.
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) November 3, 2015
But Osborne, like Prime Minister David Cameron, is committed to arguing for Britain to stay in the EU if its conditions are met. Thus his speech was largely conciliatory, friendly, and full of praise for Germany.
He said, “I’ve come to talk to you about the shared values that we have together. The Wertegemeinschaft we both seek to build.
“A Wertegemeinschaft, a ‘community of shared values’, based on mutual respect and tolerance of difference; openness and a commitment to freedom.”
And he described the fall of the Berlin Wall – when he was 18 – as “the single most extraordinary, exciting and exhilarating political moment of my entire life time”.
Osborne called on the EU to be more competitive, and then also “to fix the relationship between the member states in the Eurozone and those outside the Eurozone, so it works better for everyone”.
Signalling the nitty-gritty of where renegotiations may head, Osborne added, “In the end the inexorable logic of monetary union will mean the treaties will have to be changed to support the financial and economic union required for a permanently stronger eurozone – the stronger eurozone we want you to build.
“So let me be candid: there is a deal to be done and we can work together. Rather than stand in your way, or veto the treaty amendments required, we, in Britain, can support you in the eurozone make the lasting changes that you need to see to strengthen the euro. In return, you can help us make the changes we need to safeguard the interests of those economies who are not in the eurozone.
“What are those changes? Let me say more than we have done in public about what they are, and what they are not. We are not looking for a new opt-out for the UK in this area – we have the opt-out from the single currency we need. Nor are we looking for a veto over what you do in the eurozone.”
“Instead, what we seek are principles embedded in EU law and binding on EU institutions that safeguard the operation of the Union for all 28 member states. The principles must support the integrity of the European Single Market.
“That includes the recognition that the EU has more than one currency and we should not discriminate against any business on the basis of the currency of the country in which they reside.”
A surge in Eurosceptism has firmly pushed the European Union up the political agenda in Britain.
The ruling Conservatives promised an in/out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017 if they won the UK elections in May, placing Europe's future at the centre of the debate.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would campaign for the UK to stay, but only if the EU was able to reform, stating that “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union.”
- 17-18 Dec 2015: EU summit with British reform proposals.
- 2016: Likely year for British EU referendum.
- 2017: Self-imposed end of year deadline for British Prime Minister David Cameron to hold his in/out referendum.