25 January 2013
Thomas Raines

Thomas Raines

Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme


In his long-awaited speech on Europe, David Cameron sought to address a multitude of audiences: disgruntled Conservative MPs, the Europhobic Conservative grassroots, a largely Eurosceptic British public and 26 other European governments. The speech represents a high-stakes gambit. Cameron has traded domestic political invigoration for international uncertainty. 

A domestic audience

The speech garnered a generally positive reaction from the Conservative party and the UK press. The reaction from Britain's largely Eurosceptic press was emblematic. 'Yes Prime Minister!' cooed the Daily Mail; 'Top Merks' said The Sun. The Prime Minister's key commitment – to an in-out referendum on a specific timeline – was principally for a British audience and driven by domestic political positioning. 

In many ways, the speech was a very British view of the European Union. Although Cameron referenced the origins of European cooperation in the devastation of war, the EU's mission now is not the high politics of securing peace but the practical work of building prosperity. 

Successive British governments have tended to be pragmatic rather than ideological in their approach to European integration, weighing costs against benefits rather than unreservedly embracing a political integration project viewed by many partner states as good in and of itself. In this sense, the principles the Prime Minister outlined will find few opponents in Britain and perhaps some allies among more liberal-minded member states elsewhere in the EU. Competitiveness, flexibility (i.e variable geometry), democratic accountability, fairness (between Euro and non-Euro members states) and subsidiarity (powers flowing both ways) – many in Europe support this agenda. 

But alongside this pragmatism, there is an ideological strain in the opposition of some Conservatives to EU integration. For some, the EU is bloated, undemocratic, dogmatic and a threat to sovereignty. In this context, symbolism matters, which is why Cameron made clear his rejection of the notion of an 'ever closer union'. The referendum commitment will likely have satisfied even the harder Europhobes within his party. The Conservatives will go in to the next election with a clear message: we intend to negotiate a looser relationship with a reformed EU, and once this is achieved, we will give the British people a choice in the simplest possible terms. 

You can't always get what you want

The message is clear but the process will be complex and formidable. Appetite for a treaty change among many European partners is low. Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty which provides for treaty amendments requires unanimity. Amendment could also trigger ratification processes in member states that might require them to hold their own referenda, which will have little appeal. Many partner governments will resent the idea of negotiating under the pressure of a looming referendum. And even those who might be naturally sympathetic to the EU reject the idea of giving individual states particular opt outs or privileges. 'Flexibility sounds fine' Carl Bildt, Sweden's Foreign Minister, tweeted. 'But if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess.'

Cameron worked hard to articulate the positive reasons for Britain's continued membership of the EU. However, for all the desire to make this speech about a vision for reforming Europe, it will be interpreted by many as special pleading for Britain. Any case for EU reform which rests upon a perceived notion of British exceptionalism will struggle to succeed. Had Cameron been building a caucus of liberal, reform-minded, market-orientated heads of state and developed coordinated, practical proposals for reforming the EU, the case would be more compelling and the possibility of success considerably higher. In a union that functions on compromise, allies are crucial and isolation is toxic. 

Unanswered questions

The speech was cogent and clear. But it created as many questions as answers.

  • First, given the current treaty fatigue among member states, will there be a new treaty or amendment process within the strict timeline that the Prime Minister has committed to for the referendum? 
  • Second, if Cameron is unable to secure a renegotiation along the terms that he would prefer, would he then campaign for the UK to leave rather than accept a largely unchanged status quo? He has committed himself to a referendum but not to the side that he will be on.
  • Third, will Britain's other parties be pressed in to matching the referendum commitment? The Labour Party has resisted because they believe the timing is wrong, because of the uncertainty in the business environment it could create, and also for fear that a 'yes' campaign would be difficult to win. Each of these arguments will become less sustainable in the run up to the next election. The Prime Minister suggested that this would be a necessary part of any future coalition agreement of a government he was leading. The Liberal Democrats could face this challenge during a future coalition negotiation.

There are compound uncertainties: whether the Conservatives can secure a majority in the next general election; whether other member states are willing to negotiate; whether Cameron can secure sufficient repatriation and reform to make his party comfortable with Britain's place in the EU; and whether a positive referendum campaign for Europe can be won in reflexively Eurosceptic Britain.

It is a bold gamble. Cameron may have unleashed forces that he cannot fully control.

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