By Quint Hoekstra. Originally published on 2013/01/31

Last Wednesday, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron held his long awaited EU speech. He set forth vision of a union focused on and limited to the common market only. That means no political union, no fiscal union and no defence union. Furthermore, he implicitly called for a revised EU treaty which he wants to put up for a referendum to the British people in his next term, should he win the general elections scheduled for 2015. Expectedly the speech drew reactions from political leaders from all over Europe. Some were  harsh rhetorics, such as the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius saying he’d roll out the red carpet for businesses fleeing the UK. Others were more constructive, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel who said that she’d be willing to make a fair compromise.

So what motivated Cameron to call for these far-reaching changes? Over the past year, Cameron has been under attack from within his own party as well as from outside it. This speech should be seen as an attempt to satisfy the Eurosceptic wing within the Conservative party by calling for the referendum. Simultaneously it keeps on-board the more moderate voters who think Cameron should improve the EU, not abandon it.

Cameron’s dissatisfaction with the EU is widely shared amongst British voters. In the most  recent Eurobarometer survey of November last year, 47% per cent of British responders said they had a negative image of the EU, versus only 17% with a positive one. The British Prime Minister should therefore be applauded for addressing the people´s discontent with the status quo. He is showing courage by presenting his vision despite the troubled European environment, which is still reeling from the economic downturn.

The strength in his strategy lies in the fact that the referendum will function as leverage over other EU member states. Cameron can simply say ‘give me what I want or else I’ll make sure the referendum ends in a Brexit’, a British exit from the EU. Britain leaving the union would be disastrous for the EU as a whole as it would be the failure of the grand idea of a united Europe. Contrary to the French remarks mentioned earlier, European states will go to quite some length to keep Britain in. After all, a Brexit could very well spike a new economic recession as financial markets would lose confidence in pan-European cooperation. But by saying the referendum should only occur after treaty change, Cameron can avoid a referendum altogether and stay in the EU should other member states not be prepared to renegotiate the Lisbon treaty. From a glance, it seems like Cameron positioned himself in a win-win situation. It is however a risky approach.
First of all, Cameron has been vague about the changes he seeks. He wants the EU to focus on the internal market only and to limit regulation coming from Brussels. Yet it is precisely the internal market which in order to create an equal playing field requires these regulations in the first place. Besides, the EU cannot make any laws by itself. It always requires a qualified majority of member states to approve bills. Brussels can only do what the member states allow them to do. Cameron mentions he wants less interference on policy fields such as the environment, labour hours, social policy and crime. But he hasn’t mentioned any specific programs he wants to end. Until Cameron gets clearer and more explicit about what change he seeks others will struggle to give him what he wants.

Secondly, now that Britain has spoken out about the EU other member states now have an incentive to write up their own wish list for a new treaty. Cameron’s all-or-nothing strategy is risky when the result will most likely be a compromise of all 27 EU member states. It remains to be seen if other European leaders are able to give Cameron what he wants, given the divergence on member states´ visions for the EU.

The third and final problem with Cameron´s strategy is that it’s very short on time. His plan is to hold the revised treaty up for a referendum in the first half of his next term; again, should he win one. Elections are held in May 2015 at the latest, meaning the EU member states have only two to three years to strike a deal if Cameron´s schedule is to be met.
Previous EU treaty revision discussions have shown this takes many more years, if not a decade. This means the referendum won´t occur until the second half of Cameron´s second tenure at the soonest. Cameron’s schedule is doomed to fail, leaving disappointed those voters who soon want to have their say. Furthermore, in a few years’ time the EU is likely to still be  attempting to resolve the Eurozone crisis. This leaves the EU engaged on two fronts: the Euro and treaty revision. This overburdened agenda could very well harm Europe’s power to effectively address both issues adequately.
Cameron’s speech increases uncertainty about European integration at a time when newspapers are filled with euro woes already. But it is crucial for other member states to empathize with the British people. Ignoring the feelings of 60 million UK citizens would be unwise. Neither should EU member states only renegotiate Britain’s position in the EU.

Instead, Cameron ought to strike a compromise deal with other government leaders on EU reform for all. For this, Cameron needs to get clearer on which specific changes he seeks.  Other states can then move on from mere rhetorics to putting forward their proposals. Then, decisive action needs to be taken to simultaneously address the Eurozone crisis and treaty reform.

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