Cameron stance bad news for Britain and Europe
OPINION:The British prime minister’s EU speech has ushered in a new era of turbulence and uncertainty
Unlike some in Britain’s Conservative Party, prime minister David Cameron has not previously given the impression of being obsessed with Europe. He demonstrated no enthusiasm for the EU, but he appeared less exercised by its supposed iniquities than many Tories are.
This view of Cameron’s position is now difficult to sustain. His long-gestating speech on Europe, although containing elements that many might share, also sows the seeds for a prolonged and acrimonious debate – and not just in Britain. Conservatives in the House of Commons (and in the wider party) want to be reassured that their leader shares their antagonism for the entire European integration process.
They have not forgotten or pardoned his “treachery” in refusing to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, signed by his predecessor, Gordon Brown. With yesterday’s speech, that reassurance may now have been given.
Cameron, of course, faced a difficult task within his party, which required a statement from him of his European policy. The prime minister then had to find something appropriate to say. He needed to placate Tories and his domestic critics while avoiding the economic and political havoc that would be caused by announcing an imminent referendum that might lead to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The time that he took to decide what he would say attests to the difficulty of squaring that circle.
In fact, as Cameron’s speech made clear, his solution to his dilemma – to buy himself short-term peace from his critics at the expense of potentially making his (and Britain’s) problems more intractable in the long term – is hardly new. It was already clear that Cameron wanted to push any possibility of a referendum into the most distant possible future. The idea that he would seek to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership is also familiar from his earlier speeches.
Now that position has been bluntly and uncompromisingly expressed. The demand for far-reaching change in the structure and functioning of the EU and repatriation of powers for Britain is a major new démarche at a difficult time for Europe.
Cameron has said on several occasions he wishes to avoid a referendum revolving around the simple choice of continued EU membership on the basis of the current terms of membership. Already some are claiming to discern in his European policy the makings of an heir to Harold Wilson, another famous “renegotiator” of
Britain’s terms of membership in the then-European Community who went on to win a referendum on Europe.
Britains relationship with European integration has been a difficult one, regardless of which party has been in power (Wilson, after all, was a Labour prime minister). This was inevitable from the outset, owing to Britain’s deep and irreconcilable disagreement with virtually all other EU member states on the fundamental issue of pooling sovereignty.
Essentially, the British point of view has been that a loose confederation of nation-states co-operating on trade was as much Europe as the UK needed. But Britain joined the European Community, not just the free-trade area that Cameron now apparently wants.