Britain and Europe going through gradual disengagement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently affirmed that he would fight to keep his country in the EU in any future referendum, but his policies towards the ‘community acquis’ shows otherwise, writes Sir Julian Priestley.

Sir Julian Priestley was secretary-general of the European Parliament from 1997 to 2007. He now chairs the board of EPPA, a Brussels-based public affairs company, and sits on the boards of Notre Europe, the Paris-based think-tank, founded by Jacques Delors, and of eu.votewatch, a transparency campaign. His latest book, Europe’s Parliament; People, Places, Politics (co-authored with Stephen Clark) is published this month by John Harper.

"The national revels for the Jubilee and the Olympics may have occluded nearly all political news but before the summer break there were just a couple of straws in the wind which highlight Britain’s gradual disengagement from the EU.

In mid-July, with little fanfare, the Foreign Office announced a formal consultation on ‘the review of the balance of competences between the UK and the European Union’. The detail of the review and William Hague’s accompanying announcement were low-key. The language was serious, not polemical; the timetable leisurely. The government will only draw conclusions in 2014; and it would be only then at the very earliest that the government might seek a formal repatriation of some EU competences through Treaty change, with or without a referendum.

This exercise comes hard on the heels of the first annual survey of votes in Council conducted by and which revealed that in 2011 the UK found itself more often on the ‘losing’ side than any other member state. For years it had been the settled aim of British European policy to see the UK at the heart of Europe, to work hard to shape policies and to assume a place at the centre of decision-making. Now statistically for Council formal votes under qualified majority, the UK has found itself in the minority on around one-third of all procedures which went to a vote. As a point of comparison, France was not once among the ‘losers’. Either Britain’s representatives in Council have become less convincing and effective in pursuing their aims, or the objective has changed; and the UK government has now become comfortable with mediocre isolation.

Taking these two developments together it becomes clear that the European Union Act of 2011 and the refusal to participate in the Fiscal Stability Treaty agreed in March 2012 did not mark the end of the coalition government’s so-far fairly measured policy of disengagement from Europe. The discussion on repatriating competences will proceed, planned as an exercise in slow-motion but one that the government may well be obliged to accelerate if an intergovernmental conference on more radical Treaty change is convened shortly, as the German chancellor wishes. Were the IGC to go beyond technical bolstering of some aspects of EMU governance towards some more full-blooded fiscal union then it would be difficult for the government to explain to its own supporters that it was holding back from proposing any repatriation of competences because the FO had yet to complete a consultation exercise. UKIP, now posing a threat to the Conservatives in national as well as European elections, would seize on such a tepid and bureaucratic response with the greatest gusto.

But the behavioural change in Council, as reported by is having its effect on relations with its European partners. The annoyance of the French and the Germans with the British ‘veto’ of the Fiscal Pact was predictable. Nor was it diminished by its failure to block progress. What is now clear, as others such as the Centre for European Reform have concluded, is that Britain is increasingly losing the support of its natural soulmates in East and Central Europe, nearly all of whom remain outside the euro and  who have  generally shared a more eurosceptic approach than the federalist core. The UK attitude is now widely perceived as obstructive, insensitive to the needs of others and unwilling to contribute to finding generally accepted solutions to the euro’s problems which are in the interests of all, both those in the euro or outside.

And this in turn will make any significant Treaty change repatriating powers to the UK the tallest of orders. To put it bluntly, which other member states would now go out on a limb to support Treaty change to enable the UK to opt out of a range of EU policies (like health and safety legislation, consumer rights, environmental standards which the UK’s partners consider to be an integral part of the internal market)? What, just a few years ago, might have been an argument which Britain could have been won at Council now looks a lost cause because most of the 26 appear to have lost patience with Britain. And any recourse to ‘hardball’ – refusing to accept future Treaty change – would look to many like a rerun of a bluff already called at the end of last year when the majority carried on negotiating a budgetary pact but outside the framework of the EU treaties.

No other member state would wish to complicate steps towards a fiscal union and the strengthening of euro governance with a detailed examination of where under existing EU competences further opt-outs for one member state might be tolerable. Embarking on this process risks irritating further the UK’s partners and ratcheting up the relative isolation of the UK government.

The UK Prime Minister has recently affirmed that he would fight to keep the UK in the EU in any future referendum. But his policy of unpicking the ‘community acquis’, of furrowing an ever more solitary course in Council, and the perceived obstructionism of the UK over more radical reforms of the Union now runs the serious risk that the will of his partners to help him and his government to find even a figleaf to justify his staying in the Union may start to evanesce. If the other member states cease to care very much if the UK remains in the Union, then the Prime Minister will find it even harder to persuade his compatriots, let alone his backbenchers, to support the UK staying in."

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