Our secret columnist in Brussels Schadenfreude evaluates the lack of certainty surrounding Britain’s continued membership of the EU – and he is not at all happy with what he sees
The British Prime Minister David Cameron, a self-confessed Eurosceptic, wants a new settlement with the European Union. In some contexts, the new deal would be for Britain. In others it is, as Brussels would say ‘erga omnes’ – for every member state.
Cameron sometimes declares that he has good support among the other member states. However no other leader has stepped forward to stand by him. On the contrary when he invited others to contribute to what he called the ‘balance of competences review’ – in plainer English repatriation of certain powers – France and Germany conspicuously declined to respond.
Unarguably there is a groundswell of discontent with the activities of the union. It did not bring manna to sort out the economic crisis but nobody else did either. It is vastly unpopular in the member states, which were bailed out on condition that they made their citizenry accept austerity.
There is discontent, especially among some of the newer member states where right-wing parties in growing strength demand the return to democracy – although government of the people by the people is not in the first paragraph of their own manifesto. Even in France, the source of the great supranational visions, there is resentment of the European Commission’s ambition to intervene in fiscal policy. France decides what tax Frenchmen pay and what the country spends it on.
The British Government wish list includes the suppression of the hallowed message: ever-closer union. It was there to inspire the followers of the founding fathers, has little meaning today and ostentatiously dropping it would imply that more union is not on the contemporary agenda. While Britain is the advocate of ‘less Europe’ there is elsewhere a ‘more Europe’ movement.
It used to talk about a new treaty in which national public financing and financing institutions would be governed by the centre. The heat seems to have cooled. Talk about the new unifying treaty has died down. Europhobia is around – even in France and Germany, which when they act together effectively decide what the union – or whatever else you want to call it – will do next.
The British are already part-members. They do not pay full dues, they are not in the passport-free travel area they were out of the Maastricht social contract until Tony Blair put them in. They are busy opting-out under Lisbon Treaty provisions from the regulations passed under the heading freedom, security and justice – although they intend to apply to re-adopt a certain number of them.
And they say that the European Charter of Fundamental Rights applies only if its provisions are already embedded in national law. They talk about withdrawing from the Council of Europe’s Charter of Human Rights and its court although their predecessors were its leading progenitors and despite subscription to the charter being a condition of EU membership.
So the outlook is that Cameron quite soon tells the commission and the member states what the new settlement would look like, for him and for them. He will have some as yet unquantifiable support especially from the Netherlands and Denmark. Germany may see value in tempering business regulation but not employer-employee relations. France will support fiscal independence and could give its Europhobes something on immigration and immigrants’ social welfare.
The newer member states will remember that Britain led the charge on budgetary reductions, which reduced the grant aid –cohesion funds – they look for. Spain, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus will look for more tolerant support schemes but without directly attacking the commission. A reduction in the number of commissioners is overdue.
This occupies 2014 and 2015. Meanwhile, 2016 brings whatever these changes are, if any, and if they involve treaty-change referendums in the member states which use them. Cameron prepares for the June 2017 general election and, if re-elected, the in/out referendum with his recommendation to the voters – unless the anti-EU faction in his party succeeds in getting an earlier referendum.
In the interim, the Scots decide next year if they want to stay in the UK.
If they want to leave but join the EU they have to negotiate entry, without joining the eurozone and the Schengen agreement on passport-free travel. Just suppose that at the time of a 2017 referendum on United Kingdom membership of the EU, they are still in the UK but in the middle of retracting themselves. They would logically vote ‘in’, perhaps enough to overbear a small rest-of-UK majority vote for ‘out’. It is all hypothetical but not inconceivable. Time will tell. What fools these mortals be.