Cameron stance bad news for Britain and Europe
Nonetheless, the undertow of Euro-scepticism in British politics has never diminished and was evident in Camerons speech. Even the supremacy of European law in defined areas was accepted only reluctantly by Britain, and long after many others had done so. Britain has made major positive contributions to Europe, particularly with respect to the single market. But it is no exaggeration to state that whenever Britain has perceived an opportunity to wage a war of attrition against the European supranational project, it has done so, opposing any substantial increase in the EU’s competences or resources.
Given that this position reflects the British public’s attitude toward the EU, it is not surprising. But it nonetheless distresses other member states, particularly those, like Germany, that recognise the great benefits of having a country with a strongly pro-free trade position and a deep commitment to the rule of law playing an important role in the EU.
The prolonged period of renegotiation now proposed by Cameron implies high costs for both sides. For starters, it creates a source of deep and prolonged uncertainty at a time when the euro zone crisis already has called into question the EU’s long-term health, if not its survival.
Moreover, Cameron’s strategy seems unlikely to lead to an outcome that satisfies anyone.
If it is intended to be a negotiation that takes place in the context of broader treaty talks, it may not happen in the foreseeable future.
EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy, among others, seems to doubt the need for a new treaty, which would require the unanimous support of the member states – some of which are sharply opposed – to enter into force.
Indeed, Cameron recognised this explicitly in his speech, so the new treaty to embody a “new settlement” for Britain may have to be negotiated by Britain with all member states as a separate exercise. Part of this negotiation apparently would entail a repatriation of powers, requiring the consent of all EU members – and making the conditions under which Cameron’s renegotiation is supposed to take place both legally and politically uncertain.
Many European politicians would view a member state’s repatriation of competences as a totally destructive precedent, and thus would oppose it resolutely.
The net result is that it seems highly probable that any attempted achievement of a “new settlement”, including repatriation of competences, will make it much more difficult for Britain to remain in the EU than would be the case if a straightforward in/out referendum were held now.
So, far from reassuring anyone (including Tory Eurosceptics), Cameron’s stance heralds a new era of turbulence and uncertainty for Britain and its European partners.
Peter Sutherland is a former EU commissioner, director general of the World Trade Organisation and attorney general