The positive side of David Cameron’s lonely cruise

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It remains to be seen whether David Cameron's speech has answered questions about the long-term British strategy for the European Union, writes Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.

Jacek Saryusz-Wolski is a Polish MEP, member of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee and vice president of the European People's Party.

"British Prime Minister David Cameron's speech was more balanced than expected, as if he only just realised that the interest of the UK – in spite of all the British objections – should be to remain in the European Union.

The question to be asked though is whether the speech has in fact given answers as to the long-term British strategy for the Union, despite the inflated expectations and the widely polarised reaction it has received from European leaders and capitals. The answer is not that obvious.

Many of the elements included by Cameron in his speech, including the prospect of a referendum, the British commitment to the internal market, a critique of the Brussels administration and a vision of Europe that is flexible and at the service of individual national interests, have already been there before in one way or another.

Everyone – the eurosceptics, the europhiles and the eurorealists – can find between the lines the message that they were looking for.

At the same time, even the most controversial premise of the speech – the referendum after the next elections – is not a given. It is not to be held in any case until after the next general election in Britain. Yet it is not certain whether the Tories will win at all, much less that they would win under such slogans. 

While the speech did not clarify the British European attitude, it might have significantly contributed to clarifying the 'continent's' approach to Britain. It is starting to be tiresome to have to keep reminding what Union membership is, in fact, voluntary; the referendum is a legitimate democratic tool: pacta sunt servanda, meaning that binding contracts have to be respected and not renegotiated.

Cameron wants his cake and to eat it too. The European Union is not a menu you can freely choose from. European solidarity, including in its financial dimension, is the other side of the coin of the single market, which is so precious to the UK.

The single market, in return, is not a free lunch. The EU cannot agree on a British free-riding approach to Europe, which consists of blackmailing the EU with a "no" vote in the referendum.  This would create a risk that every member starts choosing what suits them best from the European acquis. This would be the beginning of the end of the European Union as we know it.

Nobody will agree to that. It is not about defending the status quo, the evolving European project does need improvements in many areas. But we must have agreement as to the fundamentals. Oddly enough, after almost 40 years of British membership, we are not there yet.

Strategically, and in the long term, it is better to have the UK in the Union, but a UK that will decide freely, and after a period of internal debate, that it does indeed wish to stay in. I believe that the reasonable Britons would eventually make such a decision, should it come to it.

However, it is not constructive to have a Hamlet-like UK, eternally hesitant and slowing down its partners.

Hopefully, the outcome of the referendum would be positive. If not, a slimmer Union will survive. Great Britain, on the other hand, might have a harder time, and the split would come at a significant cost.

But even, before the spectre of the referendum materialises in 2017, it is not unlikely that foreign investors start asking themselves questions as to whether it is reasonable to invest in a "maybe" Union country. This then would have an impact on British growth and jobs now.

In the context of the forthcoming EU budget summit, David Cameron's "Europe" speech may lead to a greater willingness to compromise among the member states on the continent, including by Angela Merkel and François Hollande.

Confronted with a question mark on British EU membership put forward by David Cameron, other EU member states may wish to demonstrate greater ambition and greater cohesion. That would be a positive and unintentional side effect of Cameron's lonely cruise.

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