UK's slide to EU exit door will be difficult to reverse
ANALYSIS:Eurosceptics have a growing domestic concern: Ukip is increasingly attractive to Conservative voters
A remarkable political consensus is emerging within Britain and across much of the European Union that the United Kingdom is heading inexorably towards withdrawal from the European Union.
Opinions differ about the speed of a potential British exit and also about precisely what new relationship London expects to negotiate with the union in the longer term. But, reluctantly, even Britain’s EU partners are coming to realise they may not be able to prevent a slippery slide by the UK out of the union.
The abortive EU budget summit last week showed that divisions over the size and policy priorities of the seven-year budget ran deeper and wider than the British government’s obdurate demand for a total freeze. But German chancellor Angela Merkel and her colleagues succeeded in averting – for now at least – British prime minister David Cameron ending up in an isolated, veto-wielding, minority of one.
Cameron returned to London to enjoy the rare experience of hearing his praises being sung by his hardline Eurosceptic Tory critics in the House of Commons. But they, and he, know that the budget acrimony in Brussels was only a minor skirmish in a much bigger struggle likely to develop over the coming months.
The ultimate battle will be over whether the UK can achieve a renegotiation of the terms of union membership or whether it will have to go for outright withdrawal. The stridency of the Eurosceptics is fuelled, in part, by fear of the UK Independence Party, which is winning over significant numbers of Tory voters and in part by recent opinion poll majorities in favour of UK withdrawal.
When the EU budget talks resume, Britain’s partners may be less tolerant of Cameron’s veto threats. They may even opt for an emergency one-year budget – which will fall short of the freeze Cameron seeks – and return to negotiate the seven-year budget proper only when it is clearer whether the British really are on their way out of the union.
The next test of the British government’s intentions will come at the European Council on December 13th-14th. Heads of government will consider proposed EU treaty changes designed to implement banking, fiscal and, eventually, greater political union for the euro area.
Bizarrely, the British government has declared itself strongly in favour of much closer euro area economic and fiscal union as necessary to avert a further worsening of Britain’s economic crisis. But such integration, Cameron will insist, cannot apply to Britain.
London is prepared not to veto euro area banking and economic union on two conditions. There must be guarantees that the UK (read the City of London) must not be adversely affected by decisions of the new euro area governance. And the EU must agree to negotiate a wholesale recasting of the terms of Britain’s membership. The UK would then pull out of a range of EU policies including justice, crime, immigration and social rights policies. It also wants to be free to pick and choose (and change its mind) on what it wishes to be involved in and what not.