The long-awaited speech by David Cameron on the future of the UK-EU relationship was finally given on January 23rd. While several acknowledgments are correct, I believe that the suggested remedies are wrong, in particular because the British PM has not totally grasped the significance of the EU.
David Cameron started by remembering the past, recording that Britain’s history has been undeniably linked to the continent during the past centuries, not least in the 20th century, when “in Europe’s darkest hour, [the UK] helped keep the flame of liberty alight”. He underlined the success of the European integration in bringing peace and prosperity back to a continent destroyed by two world wars within half a century, though he justly pointed out that “we must never take [peace] for granted”. He also highlighted the successful transition in Eastern Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
David Cameron was also correct when indicating that “the map of global influence is changing before our eyes” and, therefore, we must change, the EU must change. Among others, pointing at the competitiveness challenge and the fundamental changes brought by the deeper integration of the Eurozone was totally pertinent, though I have doubts about the solutions advocated by the Conservative leader. Finally, in my opinion, David Cameron was right to claim that the future of the EU must be discussed now, in order to have a clearer vision of the path forward, rather than limiting the discussion to short-term measures aimed at tackling the current crisis that particularly affects the Eurozone.
However, if it is true that change is needed, I disagree with the British PM when it comes to the solutions to face the challenges, to the principles underlining his vision of the EU future.
Is the purpose of the EU only economic?
According to David Cameron, today, “the main, overriding purpose of the European Union is […] to secure prosperity”. While it is hard to disagree that it is an important objective of the EU, it seems to me – without being “emotional” – that it is wrong to reduce the EU to an economic Union.
It is true that the Single Market was at the core of the EU, and remains one of its main achievements. Completing it by removing remaining barriers is a laudable idea and is considered by the Commission as a means to stimulate growth in Europe.
But, as EPP Group Chairman in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul, said: “[Europe] never was just a Single Market, a single currency or a set of common standards. Europe is above all a community of shared destiny with common values, founded on solidarity and responsibility.” And this is where David Cameron’s analysis and proposals fail to meet the reality: whether the UK likes it or not, whether the British people believed they “signed up” just for a Single Market 40 years ago or not, the European integration is also a political process that increasingly relies on other factors than the economic integration, such as the European citizenship and the respect of shared “values of the European civilisation” that the British PM wants to “represent and promote” in the world.
Is the EU regulating too much?
This is a recurring complaint in many British political circles: ‘Brussels’ would impose too many rules, decided without any reason, therefore preventing the Member States (notably the UK – of course) to choose their own policies to promote economic growth. David Cameron did not fail mentioning this in his speech, when he talked about “complex rules restricting our labour markets” and “excessive regulation” not being “some external plague that has been visited on our businesses”.
Moreover, the British PM talks of a “bureaucratic Europe” and an “ever-growing Commission”. But would he be ready not to have a British Commissar in Brussels? And would he accept a reduction in the number of British EU public servants? And why does he then call for the creation of a “Single Market Council”? Moreover, let us note that the number of staff of the European institutions is extremely small, considering that these institutions work for ca. 500 million citizens! To make a comparison: it is approximately only the double of the number of staff at Transport for London.
Again, this does not mean that there is no room for improvement. Probably, there are some regulations whose utility is doubtful… and the European Court of Auditors itself has recently pointed out that some European funds were badly spent. However, the British point of view is usually very liberal and, in my view, excessively denounces regulation that is needed precisely to ensure fair competition within the Single Market. Moreover, it does not really fit with the notion of “social market economy” that contains the social preoccupations of Europe, with rules protecting the health and safety of workers and the equality of treatment. The EU is not only about free trade; it is also about Human and social rights, which can precisely help to reduce the gap between the citizens and the EU that David Cameron was criticising in his speech!
Should there be more flexibility in Europe?
It is a fact that the European integration is not uniform. As reminded by the British PM, the Schengen Area or the Eurozone are not encompassing the 27 EU Member States.
However, as noted by the Conservative PM himself, “for the Single Market to function we need a common set of rules and ways of enforcing them”. Where we differ is the extent of the rules needed. He considers that it is only a few rules on free movement of economic factors and products, while I believe that competition within the single market requires more integration in order to be fair. Otherwise, the simple removal of barriers such as custom duties will advantage the countries with low social standards compared to those more advanced in that field (this was already acknowledged by reports in the 1950s before the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957).
I agree with David Cameron that a “one size fits all” approach is, at the present moment, not the best solution. I also support his idea of the Treaty clearly saying that those who want to go further and faster should be able to do so without being held back by the others. And thirdly, it is worth remembering the motto of the EU: “United in diversity”. But this cannot mean a Europe of ‘cherry-picking’, where every Member State chooses rules that pleases it and rejects the others. This would undermine the very nature of the European integration; the ‘Union’ would then remain an empty word. So, while we can accept that the integration goes forward at different paces for different Member States, a (partial) ‘disintegration’ would go the wrong way.
In fact, David Cameron’s vision of Europe shows a strong inter-governmental, realist (as an International Relations theory) vision of Europe. But the EU is more than a simple international organisation. And here lie probably the roots of the growing malaise of British politicians with the EU. It is significant that the British PM talks of “the ideal of cooperation”, rather than ‘union’…
Should power flow back to Member States?
The Treaties contain the principle of subsidiarity, according to which each decision must be taken at the most suitable level, i.e. the EU intervenes only when it brings added value. This will be usually the case in situations having a transnational dimension. Therefore, there should not be many areas where power should “flow back to Member States”…
I agree that we do not need to harmonise everything. And, for example, a fiscal and social harmonisation is more relevant within the Eurozone than outside it. So, while it may be true that the Single Market does not require setting the working hours of British hospital doctors in Brussels (though for health and safety reasons, it may be appropriate…), it does probably require setting the working hours of e.g. British lorry drivers who could directly compete with lorry drivers of other Member States. As for environment, which is another example quoted by David Cameron, it is clearly a transnational matter; it is even a global problem!
What about the European Parliament?
According to the British PM, “it is national parliaments which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”. National parliaments could indeed have a bigger role in the control of national leaders’ decisions in the Council. But then, once again, David Cameron’s vision is intergovernmental. Another perspective, the federalist one (that I share), suggests that the Commission become more accountable to the European Parliament, which is the directly elected body that represents all European citizens. One should not mix up the accountability of national leaders and the accountability of European policy-makers.
David Cameron has claimed different reasons for the current “public disillusionment with the EU” that is “at an all-time high”. People would “resent the interference in our national life by what they see as unnecessary rules and regulation”. They would be “angered by some legal judgements made in Europe that impact on life in Britain” (though, as the British PM notes it, it relates more to the European Court of Human rights than the ECJ). And they would have the feeling “they were never given a say”, as the promised referendums were not delivered. And finally, they would expect “acts of contrition” of those advocating membership of the Eurozone.
Let us be serious: those who primarily resent this disillusionment and anger are many British politicians, and it is maintained by the press. Once more, there can be occasional disillusions and questions about certain EU decisions. But David Cameron’s analysis is simplistic and does not target the real roots of the problem. So, for example, who is responsible for organising a referendum in the UK: the British politicians or the EU? And does anyone really believe that, if the British tabloids did not make sensational headlines on some judgments of the ECJ or the ECtHR the ordinary citizens would read these cases? And why should there be “contrition” for advocating joining the Euro, when this currency has overcome all the hurdles of the past months and years, remains a strong currency (it is nearly at a year’s high against the GBP) and was an essential protection for many European economies during the financial and economic crisis in 2008-09?
The decision of holding an in-out referendum is a very risky, but courageous act. It is a good thing that David Cameron resisted holding it immediately (with good justifications), though his hopes to renegotiate the conditions of UK membership are most likely to fail, as other European leaders immediately expressed opposition to such a prospect. Ironically, if he loses the elections, it will be one more referendum not “delivered” (except if the other parties also pledge to organise it)…
As EU citizen, I am convinced that the UK needs the EU and the EU needs the UK. But as Joseph Daul said, “We want a European Britain”. The UK may challenge the political orientation of the EU, but is must be ready to respect the rules of the game.
The pro-European forces, rather than being cranky about this idea of referendum, should now start to gather their forces and their arguments and to make the case for the UK membership of the EU. The media coverage favours too much the Eurosceptic side; it is our job and duty to change this! ‘He who tries nothing has nothing’. David Cameron wants a referendum; let us grab this opportunity to convince the British people of the interests and signification of EU membership!