Cameron: “in Europe, not run by Europe”

The Prime Minister has put EU governments on notice: Britain is no longer willing to accept a settlement with the European Union

Has Cameron finally faced up to Europe?
Daniel Hamilton
On 23 January 2013 11:25

Yesterday, France and Germany celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysee Treaty. While rarely mentioned today, the signing of the Treaty was hugely symbolic, formally ending hundreds of years of enmity between the two states and committing them to pursuing a “shared vision” for the future of Europe. 

"My heart is overflowing, and my soul is grateful," said an emotional President Charles de Gaulle in perfect German, after he and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the document at the heart of the relationship that has guided European integration for the past five decades. After a symbolic silence and a solemn hug, Adenauer spoke only to splutter "I have nothing to add."

The then British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home neither sought nor was granted an invitation to the historic proceedings. 

Nothing much has changed since. The united front displayed by the leaders of France and Germany that cold January morning in 1963 has, at least as far as matters of European integration are concerned, remained impregnable and unshakable.

Excluded from the talks surrounding the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, negotiations over the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the Elysee Treaty in 1963, the European Economic Community the United Kingdom entered in 1972 was already fashioned in the mould of twenty years of Franco-German cooperation. 

Winston Churchill once said that, as a people, the British are “with Europe, but not of it”. The same logic could be applied to the European Union. While the United Kingdom has long been a member, its foundations, structures and processes have long appeared remote – even alien – to the British way of doing things. 

As the process of European integration has developed through the signing of the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon, the answer to the problems of the day has always been the same: “more Europe.” 

With the exception of the early days of the Blair government when the Prime Minister was keen to demonstrate his evangelical devotion to the European project, the British position on each of these Treaties has been almost identical. The public have protested (in ever-increasing numbers) and Parliament has voiced its disquiet.

Yet, for all its huff and puff, Britain has always signed on the dotted line. The United Kingdom has, with some carping, consistently gone along with the consensus of “ever closer union” first enshrined in the Franco-German-led Treaty of Rome.

David Cameron’s speech today was the most significant given by a British Prime Minister on the topic of Europe since Margaret Thatcher’s address to the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988. Curiously, many of the challenges identified in that speech are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago.

To be more specific, Mrs Thatcher called for “Community policies which encourage enterprise” and a Europe that was not “protectionist.” “It would be a betrayal,” she said “if, while breaking down constraints on trade within Europe, the Community were to erect greater external protections”. “To supress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a Europe conglomerate,” she argued, “would be highly damaging”. 

Regrettably, that is precisely what the overwhelming majority of the British public think the European Union has spent the following quarter of a century doing. 

The EU’s own internal market remains incomplete and riddled with protectionist measures that cost businesses and members of the public billions of pounds a year while, when it comes to international trade, protectionism and the concept of “fortress Europe” is seen as increasingly attractive by many in Paris, Athens and Berlin.

This stands in stark contrast to the internationalist foreign policy pursued by the Coalition Government in the United Kingdom which has tended to emphasise building links with emerging markets in South America and the Far East, as well as rejuvenating the Commonwealth as a forum for trade promotion.

The European Union’s democratic structures are seen as aloof, remote and even corrupt by a British people who were sold the benefits of a EU membership on the basis of trade but have instead been buffeted by directives mandating the weights greengrocers may sell their products in, the number of hours workers are allowed to remain on duty, and the type of light bulbs they may buy. While the political parlance in the United Kingdom has shifted towards localised accountability decision making, the EU appears more remote than ever. 

The Prime Minister’s speech today was an effort to outline the kind of Europe the people of Britain could learn to at least live with, if not love. It stressed the importance of economic competiveness, an end to protectionism, and increased transparency in governance and budgetary processes. 

There was nothing fresh or unsurprising about this rhetoric. Comments from British Prime Ministers for European reform are nothing new. Indeed, on Tony Blair’s visit to the European Parliament in 2005 he called for an EU designed to “enhance our ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalisation, to let them embrace its opportunities and avoid its dangers”. 

What was different about this speech, however, is that it wasn’t simply a restatement of the vague aspiration of “renegotiation” but an explicit warning to the rest of Europe that Britain was no longer willing to accept European Union membership at any cost. For the first time, a British Prime Minister spoke in realistic terms about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU if renegotiation and reforms were not secured.

The Prime Minister has put EU governments on notice: Britain is no longer willing to accept a settlement with the European Union.

The Prime Minister’s speech will have disappointed those who wished to see an immediate “in/out” referendum but it was broadly aligned with the British public’s view that they wish to be “in Europe, not run by Europe”. 

In reality, it’s too soon to say if Britain will leave the European Union. Opinion polls show that the public is divided on the issue on outright departure but overwhelmingly supportive of British membership of a pared down, reformed European Union in the image of that outlined by the Prime Minister today. 

The challenge for the Prime Minister in the coming months will be to prove that he is willing to match today’s rhetoric with real action. Unless he does, this speech will be remembered as just another call for “reform” which ultimately came to nothing. 

Daniel Hamilton is a Partner and Director of European Affairs at Bell Pottinger LLP

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