Reformist zeal gone missing

Paweł Świeboda
It is one year since David Cameron made his Europe speech, outlining plans for a referendum on British membership in the EU. Admittedly, this was the only major speech on Europe made last year by an EU leader for which David Cameron deserves credit. He spelt out his vision of the future of the EU loud and clear. On the key issue, we were left in no doubt. „I want the European Union to be a success. And I want a relationship between Britain and the EU that keeps us in it“, he said.
The main proposition of the speech – reform the European Union to make it more accountable, flexible and open – seemed bound to arouse interest in the different EU capitals. And if the British government made a consistant effort to appeal to the like-minded political forces in Europe, this would have been the case. However, rather than inviting a broader European debate, London quickly became consumed by its own domestic political objectives. Its choice of areas where to seek repatriation of powers, with most attention devoted to the working time of doctors, could not have resonated in other countries, where this is simply not an issue.
David Lidington, UK‘s Europe Minister, has argued that the Tories should not „outbid“ Ukip with criticism of the European Union. They should instead project a positive message of British achievements in Europe. This makes sense but only on the assumption that Britain is indeed pushing for changes which can make Europe more robust economically. The record for the past twelve months is nowhere near what would be needed to prove the case. True, the British government has presented a major initiative to cut down on red tape. There is never too much effort to reduce bureaucracy in Europe and it is good that the UK can be counted upon to make that point. The European Commission has rightly embraced this approach.

There has been much less British activism on the flagship issue from Cameron’s speech, namely the single market. „I want completing the single market to be our driving mission“, the PM said. He spoke about the need to eliminate the non-sensical situation in which not all citizens around Europe can shop online. However, on the digital single market, it is more the Nordic countries and Estonia who have been in the driving seat, rather than Britain. Cameron‘s advocacy of the single market has been fundamentally weakened by attempts to curtail free movement of persons, some of which are in contradiction to the EU law. Little is known as well about what happened to his idea of creating a single market council that was also mentioned in the speech.
As for trade advocacy, the record is mixed. The UK government has strongly supported efforts of the European Commission to negotiate ambitious accords with Canada, Singapore, India or the United States. However, it also made the EU strategy more complicated when Cameron called for rapid trade talks with China during his autumn visit to Beijing. In saying so, he undermined the EU negotiating position which is to pursue an investment accord first before opening up discussions on trade in exchange for better access to the Chinese market.

Over the past year, the UK has managed to unnecessarily alienate a number of member states which will not make its efforts at reform and renegotiation easier. Not only the Poles and other Central Europeans feel the heat of Cameron’s rhetoric but also the French who are under constant criticism. Only Berlin is courted. German officials are by now used to calls from London whenever they mention the possibility of treaty change. However, banking everything on the good will of Angela Merkel misreads the current dynamic in the EU. As last December’s European Council showed, even the German Chancellor does not get her way without building a solid coalition around her.

EU capitals have gradually given up asking London what is it exactly that Britain would like to renegotiate to achieve the „fundamental, far-reaching change“ which PM Cameron was speaking about a year ago. Little is also known about how he plans to increase democratic accountability with a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments. For the moment, his ministers are busy putting down fires from overzealous Conservative MPs, ninety five of whom have recently called on David Cameron to block new EU legislation and repeal existing measures that threaten British national interests.
Regrettably, the in-or-out controversy has overshadowed everything else in the British debate. Only activism on the reform front can change that. An opportunity will soon arise when the EU moves into the new institutional cycle with the new Parliament and the new Commission. This will be the last chance for David Cameron to restart his efforts to make the EU „a more flexible, more adaptable and more open“.

European partners understimate the impact of the way Britain positions itself on the prospects for rejuvenating the integration project. Their poker-like faces are meant to discourage excessive British appetite for concessions. However, no-one should be left in any doubt that the UK’s potential disassociation from the EU would be cost-free for the Union’s internal cohesion, external standing as well as ability to focus on the future. Therefore once Britain clarifies its stance on what it really wants to negotiate, the rest of the EU must approach London with an open mind.
demosEuropa, Centre for European Strategy, Warsaw 24 January 2014

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