A country called Europe fills UK sceptics with fear
Confront British officials with this moment of prime ministerial candour and they will give you a pained look. It is a rare moment indeed when it is the head of government himself who publicly lays out a matter of fundamental political import in such starkly simple – or, as some critics would say, simplistic – terms as to leave no room for diplomatic subterfuge or political compromise.
But if Cameron is right and the euro zone must basically become like a country called Europe if it is to survive (with which this author happens to agree), then, barring some unforeseeable economic cataclysm, a vast majority of Britons will choose to stay outside it for decades to come.
Equally predictably, the European Union would then be reduced to some kind of glorified European free trade area encumbered with too many obsolete institutions. Whether the UK would remain in it or negotiate some other form of access to its single market would be a secondary issue.
Surely ambitions to build a European foreign and defence policy – the one other big constitutional issue to settle – would gravitate away from the EU towards the country called Europe. After all, wars cost money and a fiscal and budgetary union would soon seize control of military expenditure.
It is unclear yet whether market pressures coupled with the objective to strengthen the euro’s foundations will suffice to make the euro zone’s leaders surmount their innate conservatism and submit their countries to the joint exercise of a massively expanded euro-zone financial, fiscal and budgetary authority.
Obviously, the vast majority of the euro zone’s present leaders hope that Mr Cameron is wrong and that salvaging the euro will require merely a series of gradual moves towards deeper integration, each of which can be fragmented or fudged sufficiently to avoid the dangers of a referendum at home – or of a make-or-break confrontation with the UK over the nature of its relationship with Europe.
London’s red lines
But equally obviously, if it is the UK that sets the bar too high, if it is London that tries to extract painful concessions from its partners as the price of allowing the euro zone to salvage itself through deeper integration, then all euro-zone leaders are now determined to ignore the red lines drawn up in London and find other ways to achieve their goal.
For decades, Europeans implicitly accepted a special British right to constantly wield its veto as the unpleasant but necessary price to pay for British club membership. Today, the stakes are too high for such tolerant behaviour.
The gamble of the euro’s founders was that once the euro would be launched, no matter how steep the price of further political integration, the price of monetary disintegration would always be higher. History has embarked us on a gigantic experiment to see whether that prediction will come to pass.
What becomes of the UK in Europe or outside, it has now become a fascinating but minor part of that far broader narrative. Continental federalists such as this author, of course, will be tempted to wish the UK Godspeed and bon voyage. After all, it might even become possible to build a US of E once the flatmate with the armoured handbag has moved out.
Thomas Klau is senior policy fellow and head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations