HONG KONG – David Cameron finally made his long-awaited speech demanding a new deal for Britain in the European Union.
He displayed again the old British ambivalence toward Europe. The prime minister wanted a quick political fix, to quiet his rightwing rebels and to boost his flagging domestic popularity, but he delivered it at the expense of political and economic damage to Europe, to Britain and probably to Cameron himself.
He promised that if he were re-elected at Britain’s next elections due by 2015, he would renegotiate the country’s membership in the European Union, and put the resulting deal to a straight “in or out” referendum allowing the British people to choose. Any decision therefore is five or more years away.
By fixing his promise to an election that he may or may not win, Cameron gained time but at the expense of uncertainty for everyone. An inevitable ugly new word has been coined, “Brixit,” meaning British exit, to refer to whether or when and under what circumstances the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Fresh uncertainty will be piled on an already fragile EU.
Some of Cameron’s complaints made sense, and his general tone was more reasonable and positive than the sound bites suggested. As he claimed, “the gap between the EU and its citizens has grown dramatically.” Many opinions polls across Europe share his point. He added: “People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity, or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.”
The sprawling EU bureaucracy spends far too much money devising and enforcing, in 23 official working languages, directives that are sometimes sensible but too frequently border on idiocy. Rules on the shape, size and diameter of fruit and vegetables are among the Euromyths: knobbly fruit was never banned, just not allowed to be counted as class I.
But there are enough examples of energy, time and money being wasted on crazy directives. In November 2011, after spending three years investigating the issue, Eurocrats declared that drink manufacturers could not claim that water could prevent dehydration; anyone making the claim could face two years in jail. But, as if to underline its own idiocy, a week later EU scientists decided that there is sufficient evidence to prove that water can regulate the body’s temperature and help it carry out normal physical and cognitive functions.
Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian praised Cameron’s speech for exposing the pretensions of the EU: “The EU’s elder statesmen tried to run politically before they could walk economically,” he claimed. The subeditor who put the headline on Jenkins’ column was snappier: “Cameron’s speech told Europe’s emperors to get dressed,” it said, referring to the small boy who was audacious enough to tell the truth that the emperor was naked.
Unfortunately, Cameron addressed the need for negotiations and wholesale revisions of the EU treaty purely in terms of British demands. If the way that Europe operates has major flaws — and the euro crisis and prolonged slow growth suggest reasons for changes — then it is a matter for all the European countries. Instead, Cameron tried to present himself as a true European being pushed reluctantly toward the exit, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy — to everyone’s detriment — if other Europeans tire of London’s strident claims to a special deal.
The British prime minister enunciated his five principles for Europe: competitiveness based on a common market rather than a single currency; flexibility and cooperation in a union of free member states promoting the values of European civilization but not an ever closer political union; powers that flow back to member states not just away from them; greater democratic accountability vested in national parliaments; and fairness for all, inside and outside the eurozone.
Some of these issues would find widespread support across Europe whereas others are highly contentious. But apart from an occasional reference to other leaders, Cameron did not try to build a coalition for change. He rubbed salt in old wounds by referring to British anger at some judgements by the European Court of Human Rights, although that court is not part of or established by the EU.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, summarized European reaction to Cameron’s speech by tweeting, “Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess.” (The EU will have 28 members when Croatia joins in midyear.)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said something similar: “Germany, and I personally, want Britain to be an important part and an active member of the European Union. We are prepared to talk about British wishes, but we have always to keep in mind that other countries have different wishes and we have to find a fair compromise.”
Other leaders were angrier, accusing Britain of “cherry-picking,” although all EU members try to cherry-pick all the time on behalf of their vested interests. France is demanding double-subsidy farm “reform.” Other countries may be more cynical and less self-righteously complaining about it.
British commentators have largely ignored what happens if a re-elected Cameron opens negotiations for a new deal for Britain and runs into a brick wall of opposition to a special unilateral deal for Britain or if EU members reach a consensus on major revisions that do not go as far as Cameron wants. Will the prime minister then sulk away and turn his back on thousands of years of history in which Britain has always protected its interests by being a European power?
The EU is Britain’s lifeline economically; politically Britain both gives and gets more attention by being in the EU, as Washington has urged, apparently to a deaf Cameron.
Perhaps the British electorate will take the matter out of his hands. Ironically, given his complaints about austerity in Europe, Cameron’s own economic policies are so far from working that the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund has urged Britain to consider a plan B, including less emphasis on austerity.
So far, Cameron has refused to budge and is looking at growth of 1 percent at best, maybe staring at triple-dip recession, not a good platform for election victory.
In the 1930s, the Daily Mirror published a headline: “Fog in (English) Channel: Continent cut off.” Ironically, when Cameron began his speech about his country’s relationship with the Europe, EU headquarters in Brussels was shrouded in fog. It should not obscure the self-righteous hot air sprouted on all sides.
But British governments need to be more careful and to find some friends before picking schoolyard fights.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.