Mr Cameron's limited vision
After months of fevered speculation and a dramatic, last-minute postponement and change of venue in response to the Algerian hostage crisis, David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Britain’s future in Europe has delighted Tory Eurosceptics while dismaying almost everyone else. The promise of an “in-out” referendum on EU membership was the red meat the prime minister hurled towards his backbenchers, although the vote will not come before 2017, after the next general election. Before the referendum, Mr Cameron hopes to negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU, repatriating some (mostly unspecified) powers but remaining “at the heart” of the European single market.
Conservative MPs cheered as Mr Cameron entered the Commons after the speech but deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg warned that “a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs”. Reaction from Berlin and Paris was cool, making clear that there is no appetite for allowing Britain to pick and choose among the privileges and obligations of EU membership. EU leaders are also retreating fast from the idea of reopening the EU treaty to facilitate changes to euro-zone governance in the hope of depriving Britain of the leverage offered by a veto threat.
Mr Cameron wants to remove from the treaty the aspiration towards “an ever closer union”, outlining an alternative vision for a reformed EU. “We believe in a flexible union of free member states who share treaties and institutions and pursue together the ideal of co-operation,” he said. “To represent and promote the values of European civilisation in the world. To advance our shared interests by using our collective power to open markets. And to build a strong economic base across the whole of Europe.” He warned of the damage to British interests represented by a withdrawal from the EU, returning again and again to the importance of the single market for his country’s economy.
The prime minister recognised the need for common rules across the single market but he failed to acknowledge that such rules are essentially political and that it is impossible to disentangle the purely economic from the political in a union as large, complex and far-reaching as the EU. Indeed, it is the very same European single market that he cherishes that is the source of some of the more intrusive regulations that inflame anti-European opinion in Britain. Mr Cameron warned his European partners that failure to agree a new deal for Britain could encourage his country to “drift towards the exit”. The danger for Britain and its friends in Europe is that the prime minister’s own flawed logic on Europe will make such an outcome more likely.