Tuesday, 22 January 2013

How credible will David Cameron's EU speech be?

In advance of the Prime Minister's long-awaited EU speech tomorrow morning, the DM has an article today on Public Service Europe looking at the credibility of his EU policy

The article as published is reproduced below:


This Wednesday, David Cameron is to finally deliver his much-anticipated speech setting out his position on the renegotiation of some of the European Union's powers, bringing them back to Westminster and on holding a referendum. The prospect of the British prime minister making a statement about the United Kingdom's relationship with the EU has sparked a flurry of comment about whether or not Britain should renegotiate its membership of the union and, if so, which powers the country should seek back.

Cameron's every word is likely to be pored over by pressure groups on both sides of the debate and, not least, by a large number of his own backbenchers. They are looking for a clear indication that the Conservative Party leader shares their concerns about the EU's powers and will give them a popular referendum pledge with which to fight the next election. But there is one question it seems certain that the speech will not answer and, unfortunately, it is the question on which the entire credibility of Cameron's EU policy and the prospect of a referendum depend.

Beyond the desirability of renegotiation, which has so far been the main focus of debate, how feasible is it that Cameron will secure the necessary agreement of other member states to a renegotiation and a return of European powers from Brussels to Westminster? If the prime minister intends to make a referendum pledge dependent on his view of a positive outcome from such discussions, few will take seriously the idea that they will get the chance to give 'fresh consent' to Britain's links with Brussels - unless the process by which negotiations will take place is made clear.

There are only three methods by which treaty amendment discussions can be launched and Cameron's difficulty is that two of them require the cooperation of the 26 fellow member states. The prospects of this happening are looking increasingly bleak. In recent weeks, prominent figures including Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti have lined up to denounce the idea that any single country should be permitted to revise its membership of the EU.

French President Francois Hollande's comments after December's meeting of the European Council summed up the mood. "I think the treaties are there to be abided by," he said. "Europe isn't a Europe where competences could be withdrawn." Where, in this, does Cameron believe lies the support he needs to negotiate, never mind secure agreement to, a return of powers to Westminster?

The method the prime minister and his supporters tend to cite is that forthcoming negotiations over moves towards EU 'fiscal union' should be used to try to broaden discussions - to giving the UK opt-outs from other areas of the treaty. The EU, they say, "is changing" and Britain should take its chance to put its own changes on the table.

While there will undoubtedly soon be discussions, mainly centred on the eurozone, about passing further budgetary sovereignty to Brussels - since other EU members could dismiss his proposals as irrelevant, this strategy would involve Cameron having to play extreme hardball with the EU. He would have to refuse to approve changes purportedly designed to ensure the euro's survival, until UK opt-outs were granted.

As well as being politically very dramatic and therefore unlikely, this would leave the UK open to charges of both blackmail and hypocrisy; since the British government has said that it supports greater fiscal union for the eurozone countries in order to reduce the effects of euro instability on the UK economy. The second method is for the government to invoke Article 48 of the EU treaty. This opens a convoluted process to revise the treaty involving a succession of conventions and conferences at the end of which other European governments and institutions are likely, also, to collectively reject any repatriation proposal.

That leaves the third method, which is the only way to guarantee that discussions about the EU's powers cannot simply be dismissed by other European leaders and, therefore, is the only way that Britain can underpin the credibility of Cameron's EU strategy. If he hopes on Wednesday to dodge the accusation that he is seeking merely to introduce more delay and distraction into the EU debate, rather than respond to clear public concerns about the union's powers, he must make clear that he plans to employ Article 50 of the EU treaty.

Only by giving notification that the UK intends to decouple itself from the EU's growing political centralisation can the PM convince his peers that he is serious about achieving change. And only then can the country focus on a necessary debate about how best to shape future relations with our European neighbours - such that they meet the needs of business, retain the benefits of cultural exchange but also, crucially, respect democracy and national diversity.

No comments: