UK’s Euroscepticism has robbed it of inside role in EU decision-making
Europe Letter: as the UK tries to change its relationship with the EU, sympathetic voices at the top are important
British prime minister David Cameron. By declaring last year its intention to renegotiate its relationship with Brussels, Britain finds itself in a curious space both inside and on the periphery of EU policymaking. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
When some of Europe’s most powerful leaders gather in Dublin today to select their candidate to head the European Commission, one country will be conspicuously absent. David Cameron’s Conservative party left the European People’s Party (EPP), the political grouping of centre-right parties, in 2009.
Always uncomfortable with the pro-integrationist ethos of the EPP, the Tories opted instead to team up with Polish, Latvian and other right-wing parties to form the largely ineffectual European Conservative and Reformists group.
As a result, Britain finds itself excluded from the process to elect the person who may emerge as the head of the European Commission for the next five years. This relationship with the EPP encapsulates a broader problem facing Britain in its relationship with the EU. By declaring last year its intention to renegotiate its relationship with Brussels, Britain finds itself in a curious space both inside and on the periphery of EU policymaking.
While undoubtedly Britain is still a major player in European politics – along with France it is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council and plays a decisive role in EU foreign policy – officials are faced with the conundrum of how to shape EU policy when their country is outwardly questioning the basic facets of many aspects of membership.
Despite the perception in some quarters that some of the extreme Eurosceptic views are the preserve of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), British officials in Brussels are extremely forthright in their criticism of EU policy, in particular related to immigration.
Apart from Westminster’s continual battles with Brussels – particularly over the issue of “welfare tourism” – member states are beginning to query the substance of the Conservative Party’s plan to renegotiate Britain’s membership.
More than a year after David Cameron’s famous speech, Britain is coming under pressure to articulate which aspects of EU membership it wants to renegotiate.
Treaty change, as German chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated last week in London, is not on the table, despite Britain’s belief that a reopening of the EU treaties is necessary to implement many of the economic reforms being pursued by the euro zone.
How far the Conservative Party will be able to wrench changes from Brussels, without the option of treaty change, is unclear. British foreign secretary William Hague pointed out last month Britain has already achieved changes to EU policy, for example in lowering the EU budget.
Britain is also continuing to successfully shape policy in other areas – for example its preference that the new climate change package would not include binding national targets for renewable energy was reflected in the commission’s initial proposal.
Arguably, however, these kinds of modifications would have happened anyway – countries’ abilities to shape and modify EU policy is part and parcel of EU policy-formation.
One area in which Britain is finding common ground with its fellow EU members, however, is its views on the election of the next commission president, which is being discussed at the EPP congress this week. British officials strongly question the notion the next head of the European Commission should be linked to the results of the European Parliament elections.
“The whole procedure is an idiotic idea, “ said a senior British official last week, pointing out the process rules out candidates that are sitting prime ministers . He added that the Lisbon Treaty does not specifically say that the candidates of the party groups in the European Parliament should automatically become president of the commission, as argued by the Socialists and Democrats .
The view is shared by a number of countries, including Germany, with the chancellor herself uneasy with the idea.
As a result, even if the EPP picks its candidate as expected tomorrow, it is likely a different candidate could still be chosen at the last minute once negotiations for the top EU jobs begin in earnest after the elections.
Despite Britain’s argument that the process of selecting a candidate that reflects the outcome of the election “politicises” the process, in reality the appointment of candidates will reflect the political will of the bloc’s largest member states.
From Britain’s perspective, it will still have a strong say on who gets the top jobs in the next EU administration (currently, British peer Catherine Ashton is high representative for foreign affairs) .
As it embarks on a challenging period in its relationship with Brussels, having sympathetic voices at the top echelons of the EU will be vital. To this extent, Taoiseach Enda Kenny could be still seen as a top candidate by Britain when the post of European Council president becomes vacant in June.