Will Cameron’s Demands Make the EU Better?

Cameron’s aim to loosen but retain confederal ties between London and Brussels raises the possibility not only of Brexit, but also of Euroexit.

The United Kingdom is the most unusual of all EU member-states. She has been a key player at almost every pivotal moment in the history of the European project, and yet she has always been uncertain as to whether or not she belongs in the European political family. Famously, it was wartime premier Winston Churchill who in 1946 called for “United States of Europe,” whilst making it clear that Britain would act as a supportive sponsor for the new union and nothing more. Once the plans for European Defense Community were dead and it became clear that confederal arrangements would be the norm, the UK became enthusiastic to join, only to be rebuffed by French fears of Anglophone hegemony. And, soon after Britain finally succeeded in joining the EEC in 1973, the Thatcherite 1980s brought about a revival of Eurosceptic nationalism that still lingers. Ambivalent as ever, Britain has since rejected the euro while also providing the engine for the Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy.

In May last year, the Eurosceptic tendency seemed to win out. The Conservative Party won a majority in Britain’s general election, promising to renegotiate the terms of the country’s EU membership and hold an in-out referendum by the end of 2017. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose preference is for continued British membership, now faces the Herculean task of finding an arrangement that is amenable to both the British electorate (and his broadly Eurosceptic party) and the 27 other member- state governments of the EU. The months after the election were peppered with European crises, from the third Greek bailout to the end of the Schengen Agreement, but no further details on Cameron’s plans for renegotiation surfaced. Only on 10th November did the British government publish his letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, outlining his demands. Disappointingly, there is little to recommend them.

A Letter to the President

These demands can largely be divided into two categories. The first set are those which, rather than necessitating international negotiation, are actually possible to fulfill under existing arrangements. For instance, Cameron wants to introduce an additional stage in the EU legislative process in which national parliaments could vet and reject incoming laws. Not only would this add another layer of bureaucracy to the current cumbersome process, but there is already the possibility for parliaments to have an input: a protocol to the Lisbon Treaty invites member-state executives to consult their MPs in advance of Council meetings, a policy that the Dutch (amongst others) regularly invoke. There is nothing to prevent the British executive implementing a similar procedure with its own Houses of Parliament. Cameron has also called for a consolidation and simplification of regulations applying to the single market. This would indeed help promote growth, which is why there is already a Better Regulation project underway on the EU level, chaired by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Again, the present terms of British membership are sufficient for Cameron’s demands.

Conversely, the second set of demands would be impossible to grant without compromising some fundamental principles of the EU. This is the case of surely the most publicly sensitive issue at hand in the upcoming referendum: migration, and its purported effect on the British welfare state. The UK is highly unusual in its near-universal access to welfare provision, with virtually no barriers to EU migrant usage and no insurance- based residency or work prerequisites. There is a general sense that immigrants from other EU countries are placing an unsustainable strain on the system (although empirical evidence would suggest otherwise), yet Nigel Farage is correct about one thing at least: it is impossible to opt out of the free movement of people whilst remaining part of the single European market. (Angela Merkel, though generally sympathetic towards Cameron’s reform agenda, has been clear on this). It remains unclear as to what Cameron wishes to achieve on migration. The only concrete demands in his letter to Tusk relate to such changes as imposing stiffer residency criteria for welfare payments, hardly a subject worthy of high-level diplomatic negotiations. The subject of migration is impossible for him to ignore given the political climate in Britain, and yet equally impossible to compromise on with his interlocutors. A new grand bargain with Europe may be possible in the context of eurozone political union, but a quick fix under the current arrangements is not.

A Europe of Two Parts

However, more important than the individual demands is what they and the renegotiation process collectively represent: an insufficient (but absolutely necessary) shift in thinking if the EU is to survive and prosper in the 21st century. 64 years after the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, and now with 28 vastly different member-states, the EU’s elasticity is reaching its limit. How can a confederal union persist with such a diversity of interests between its member-states? In the area of defense, the original raison d’etre of the European project, to cement the Western alliance against the threat of the Communist East, has found new impetus in another era of Russian imperialism—yet the EU has been paralyzed by divisions in its response to the Ukrainian and Syrian wars. In finance, meanwhile, the eurozone crisis has exposed the fatal disconnect between monetary and fiscal policymaking—and still the resolve to centralize economic powers has been severely lacking. Now more than ever, the European core must accelerate its integration into a full federal union—yet, for Britain, this is not remotely on the agenda.

It is this last problem which, if handled correctly, can be converted into a strength. Cameron’s aim to loosen but retain confederal ties between London and Brussels raises the possibility of not only Brexit, but also Euroexit. In this latter state of affairs, freed from mounting compromises with Britain, the eurozone states would accelerate their integration into a federal republic similar to those of Germany or the USA. The EU would afterwards consist of essentially two member-states: a European federation, with confederal ties to a United Kingdom retaining key elements of her national sovereignty, including her armed forces and currency. We would expect all other present EU member-states to become part of the federation. The single market would persist as the main adhesive of the union, and would continue to facilitate close cooperation on major issues such as environmental and international development policy. Above all, the new federal government would provide a united response to security and migration on Europe’s eastern and southern borders, with Britain supplying support in proportion to her more limited geographical exposure.

In his letter to Tusk, Cameron writes of his desire to support the eurozone states in securing their future. At this point in time, in a strange echo of Churchill’s insistence in 1946 that the British should be “friends and sponsors of the new Europe,” the best contribution that the UK can make is to establish the principle of a two-tier EU. If his renegotiations remove the commitment on Britain to an “ever-closer union” and allow the majority to press forward into federation, he will have succeeded.

For too long, European integration has crept forwards at an agonizingly slow pace, bound by consensus-building between states that may share a governmental process, but see its end-purpose in very different ways. The recent glut of crises has done something to stimulate action, and it is encouraging that the present British government understands—more than most of its predecessors—that the EU is not standing still. The tendency is already towards federal union. Both with a view to her own self-interest and for the good of the whole European continent, Britain would be wise to expedite that process.

Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is a Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and President of the Project for Democratic Union, which advocates a full political union of the eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject.

Author of “Europe: The struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present day” (Penguin Press, 2013) and “The longest afternoon: The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo” (Penguin Press, 2014), which is about the King’s German Legion as prototype for a future European army.

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