David Gow queries whether David Cameron’s and Angela Merkel’s approach to the EU can be reconciled

February 4th, 2013

Two recent events have simply served to underline Britain’s odd status in the European Union. On 22 January France and Germany celebrated 50 years of official reconciliation, enshrined in the Elysée treaty of 1963 – the same year Charles de Gaulle rejected Britain’s first application to join the then Common Market. Then, the next day David Cameron set out his conditions for reconciling the British people (a “fresh settlement”) to the EU over a five-year process, ending in an in-out plebiscite.

The European Debate

Tomorrow Ken Skates, Labour AM for Clwyd South, explains why it is in Wales’s interest to remain inside the European Union. On Tuesday David Melding examines some unionist and nationalist contradictions.

There has, truth be known, been little whole-hearted reconciliation between the UK and EU in the half-century following the Franco-German treaty and that Gaullist veto. Nor in the 40 years since Britain formally joined. Yet Cameron is counting on the goodwill and co-operation of his 26 colleagues (soon to be 27 when Croatia accedes) to sign up to his Four Rs: reform, renegotiation, repatriation, referendum. It’s a big ask, unlikely to be met.

This is one of the biggest vacuums (there are several) at the core of Cameron’s speech: the assumption that they, the continentals, will a) sign up for his agenda on his terms and b) will do everything they can to help him deliver a Yes vote after c) substantial renegotiation and social-economic and institutional reforms that d) they will agree to in order to keep the UK in at all costs. A British PM whose advisers do not even know that January 22 1963 was a key date in post-war Europe can hardly expect his so-called partners to come running to his beck and call.

What has been striking, since the speech was delivered, is the absence of those very partners from the debate that has ensued here in the UK. Cameron and his team have tried to spin a few remarks from Angela Merkel, German chancellor, or Mark Rutte, Dutch premier, as positively effusive when they plainly are not. This has reached the ludicrous point where it is seriously being suggested an Anglo-German tandem is replacing Berlin’s alliance with Paris as the driving force of a New Europe. Our monolingual political commentariat, the Lobby, has, for the most part, duly swung in behind No 10’s line – including the proposition that Labour/Ed Miliband are impaled on the referendum question.

All this simply underlines how internal to his party and, let’s be a touch charitable, the country and Europe Cameron’s remarks were and are.

Let’s be clear: the prospect of the Others agreeing to Dave’s agenda is zero. The ‘phantom’ veto of fiscal collaboration in the Eurozone that Cameron tried to wield in December 2011 has not been forgotten. In 40 years of reporting the EU I have never experienced such an onrush of rage and exasperation as after that poorly-planned and badly-executed démarche. Of course, everybody can accept that Europe needs to be more competitive – “more adaptable, flexible and open” – if it is to offer, even remotely, plenitude and prosperity for its 500m-plus citizens in a world where it risks being left behind. But the bulk of Europeans think that can best be achieved by working together – through shared sovereignty. Not threatening to leave if selfish terms of engagement are not met.

Equally, all can sign up for Cameron’s four other principles: flexibility, subsidiarity, democratic accountability and fairness. But, obviously, they see these in a variety of ways. Even among the Nordic proponents of flexible, open markets and free trade – Cameron’s coalition of the willing – there is no appetite for the nakedly neo-liberal goal of dismantling Social Europe or rigging the single market to embrace a race-to-the-bottom on wages. Merkel’s Christian Democrats wholly endorse the social market economy. Nor is there any backing for the cavalier attitude towards human rights or judicial/police co-operation that many Cameron supporters, including some in Fresh Start, display. (This group’s ‘Manifesto for Change’ contains proposals that the courts in this country would throw out as illegal).

It has been said before but bears repeating: Cameron’s entire timetable – preparing referendum legislation before 2015, winning an absolute majority that year, renegotiating what Tim Montgomerie’s fantasises as the Treaty of Berlin within a year or two and then winning an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 – is unrealizable. It is a process over which he has no control. He can never satisfy the die-hard europhobes within his party who are already clamouring for the legislation on a referendum to be enshrined now. Or pushing for the UK to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty: unilateral, free exit from the EU. Or rejecting in advance the meagre, Harold Wilson-style morsels he might bring back from any renegotiation. It’s not that Britain would be sleep-walking towards Brexit. It would be doing so eyes wide open.

The eurozone crisis helped force Cameron’s hand, encouraging eurosceptics to argue that Europe is in inexorable decline and a Britain freed from its travails and the shackles of “Brussels” could ride the waves of globalization more readily and more profitably. But, six months after Mario Draghi’s commitment to “do whatever it takes” to retain the single currency, the prospects are rather different. Triple-dip Britain looks like a country which, under the tutelage of Cameron and George Osborne, has run out of ideas – and hope. A German-led recovery in northern Europe may kick in while, even in the wreckage of parts of southern Europe, some of the pain, administered in the form of “internal devaluation”, may be bearing fruit. The point regarding the internal UK debate is: we simply don’t know yet.

Either way, the Eurozone (EZ-17) plus ever-closer allies such as Poland will be spending the next few years discussing and deciding on its future shape – like the fiscal integration package France and Germany will present in June.  But, just as Berlin sees no merit in giving into Cameron’s demands for a root-and-branch renegotiation, nor does it see the need for a long, drawn-out negotiation of significant treaty change to enshrine a deeper EMU. Yet the British PM’s strategy depends upon both. Eight months before a general election, the outcome of which is no longer a shoo-in for Merkel, the German chancellor is in no mood to concede an inter-governmental conference on treaty change that could last five years or more. Nor are France, Italy and the rest… A Europe of nations, not a federal Europe, is present and future reality.

What is the case is that, as Philip Stephens put it in the FT the day of the speech, “deeper economic integration within the Eurozone will require a new settlement between the single currency ins and outs”.

This is, in fact, work-in-progress already as Radek Sikorski, Polish foreign minister and jilted anglophile, says: “Poland could take Britain’s place over the next decade. We would have to continue reforms and join the eurozone, then we could be the ones in the group of three, or five, countries which have the biggest say in the EU.”

Poland, governed from the centre-right and eager to claim its influential place inside an evolving Europe, offers a different kind of “fresh settlement”.

Poland, of course, differs from the UK in that it is legally bound to adopt the euro in due course. But its government’s often hard-headed approach indicates a path that Britain would be well-advised to follow: working with allies across a range of issues to modernise Europe and make it work better and more equitably for its peoples. With the possibility of like-minded (centre-left) governments in Germany, France, Italy and, later, Spain on the horizon, Labour has a chance to work with the grain of reform and with allies. This will enable it, by 2015, to present a programme of social and economic change and renewal within the EU, not without, and within Britain too. By contrast, the Cameron course professes reform but can deliver none. Instead, it helps propel Britain towards an exit door onto a colder, more hostile world.

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David Gow is a former German Correspondent and European Business Editor of The Guardian. He is now editor-in-chief of EuropeWatch, the daily Bulletin of the Centre for British Influence, a new ‘eurorealist’ campaign for the UK to be an active but critical EU member. This article was first published by OpenDemocracy.

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