Published on January 30th, 2013 |
by Iain Waterman
Image © AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Cameron trod tightrope on EU speech
It almost feels slightly late to be writing an EU comment piece: After David Cameron delivered his ‘tantric’ Bloomberg address last week debate over Britain’s future in Europe dominated the press for days. Despite voters ranking Europe as one of their least significant issues, political writers scrambled to make sure everyone knew how the y felt. It’s funny how things work…. Nonetheless, I can’t blame them. EU membership is undoubtedly one of the most contentious debates of modern politics and will continue to grow in significance and intensity until we reach the long grass of 2017 (and probably after).
Cameron’s speech successfully trod the tightrope between arguing the need for change and insisting that Britain would remain a significant player in the EU project. He did so by positioning himself as the reformer, by arguing that Europe had to evolve to ensure its survival in an ever more competitive world. In the wake of the Eurozone crisis, this argument, never lacking in credibility, has become increasingly relevant. His language was deft and his message well poised.
And there are supporters of this message. European figures of various political leanings have been lining up to endorse Cameron’s call for reform. Halbe Zijlstra, leader of Holland’s VVD party said “we are so incredibly happy that Cameron is engaging in this discussion.” Undoubtedly the most important and surprising response came from Angela Merkel, who admitted she was “prepared to talk about British wishes”, which infuriated the French (arguably a vote winner in itself).
The big announcement of course, was that Cameron would, if still leader, put a referendum to the British people in 2017 having fought to renegotiate a new, better deal for Britain in Europe. Bigger still was Ed Miliband’s stuttering admission that he would not support a referendum, a stance that his policy team then spent all day attempting to roll back. Considering the weight of public support for renegotiation, the political gain of nullifying UKIP and Labour and the unifying effect on his own party, Cameron may have scored a legacy-defining goal.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As critics rightly point out, much will depend on what Cameron is able to renegotiate. Minister for Europe David Lidington ducked awkwardly away from defining what ‘success’ would look like; of course by the definitions of the Tory right, success may be impossible to achieve for Cameron. France have already said “non” to “a la carte Europe”, and UK critics argue that the PM has only condemned Britain (and potential business interests) to four years of uncertainty.
Such arguments are folly in my view however. Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been a source of anxiety for businesses that have to deal with European red tape and politically, it has always been a big monkey on our backs. Setting a date for a referendum acts as a timetable for renegotiation, which should cure instability, not cause more of it. What is more it is an example of Britain being prepared to set the agenda and champion the case for reform. The accusation of ‘cherry picking’ from the French is a fantastic piece of chutzpah considering that Hollande recently campaigned to raise the EU farming subsidy to French farmers whilst Spain and Greece are sinking under the weight of their debts.
More significant is the broader question of European integration and the need for reform. My fellow Catch21 writer Katharina Obermeier has eloquently set out the arguments for greater integration (read the comments to see how far this debate extends). However in my view Cameron’s argument was exactly right – we must stay in the EU, but independent nation states should not be forced to relinquish control over such substantial areas of policy. As The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins explains, the gap between the EU and its citizens has widened to the point where the EU is something that is being ‘done to’ people – a referendum is a defiant move against this.
For many observers, Brussels increasingly resembles a muddled bureaucracy that has accumulated vast power over policy in countries that are enormously diverse. As is always the case when centralisation goes too far, dynamism and flexibility are lost – you only have to look at the sluggish response to multiple crises within the Eurozone (which Jenkins calls “appalling”), to see this.
This accumulation of authority has been done in the name of ‘ever closer union’ to further the strength of Europe as a whole and make government more efficient. As evidenced by the Eurozone crisis, the success of these objectives has been less than convincing. Whilst I agree there are several policy areas that could be more efficiently run at a pan-European level (environment, energy, defence etc), this can be done through close cooperation, without the need for ‘ever closer union’. Of course NATO, the joint European-American defence coordination, is one such example.
Ultimately, I don’t trust Brussels to represent my (British) interests – the public have a hard enough time trusting British politicians to do the right thing for Britain, so lets not enlarge the distrust by 26 times. Yet despite the protests of Nigel Farage, the EU is essential to Britain’s future prosperity. David Cameron boldly took a stand for the interests of all sovereign nations who feel control of their own countries slipping towards Brussels.
And since you’ve read this far, enjoy some hilarious footage of Nigel Farage at the European parliament. I don’t agree with aims, but you have to concede he puts his points pretty forcefully.