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Cameron’s ‘a la carte’ EU idea just national chauvinism?

David Cameron is playing to his base, largely, in giving Britons the option of divorcing the European Union. But European leaders are warning there will be consequences — for the EU and Great Britain.

The English have always been ambiguous towards “the continent”. It is, as any self-respecting English person will tell you, full of foreigners. And England’s Conservatives, particularly their more reactionary, chauvinistic rump, have always been anti-European Union.

So, as the EU contemplates moving towards greater integration, it was not entirely surprising UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced overnight he would hold a referendum on whether the UK would remain within the EU and, if so, on what terms. There was some ambiguity in Cameron’s speech, with some viewing it as a bet each way on the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The Conservatives had already introduced a “referendum lock” on acceding further powers to the EU, which means further pro-EU changes have to go to a ballot. But Cameron is now looking to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU on those areas previously agreed to.

If the renegotiation is successful, he says, he will support remaining within the EU. But, if not, Cameron says UK voters would have the simple choice of leaving altogether. The likely date for the UK referendum on remaining within the 27 countries is the next elections in 2015.

The UK’s ambiguity towards the EU has manifested most clearly in refusing to accept the euro as its currency. This has limited some financial elements of the UK’s economic integration into the EU but, with the eurozone going through an economic crisis, it has also shielded the UK economy from financial contagion.

In particular, the UK has been critical of the EU’s handling of the Portugal-Ireland-Greece-Spain (PIGS) debt crisis and has been deeply unhappy about the ongoing bailout process, agreed to by the previous Labor government. The Conservative-led government’s plan is to extract itself from the bail-out process.

While economic matters are at the heart of the Cameron’s comments, many in the UK question the EU’s “democratic legitimacy”. For some, this disguises a more base truth about national chauvinism.

In large part, Cameron’s speech was directed at his own backbenchers, who in turn are responding to an increasingly worried electorate. The speech was also directed at clawing back voters who have shifted across to the more stridently nationalist Independence Party, which is second to the Conservative Party in the UK’s EU representation.

As the Conservative-led coalition government struggles to maintain unity with its ideologically distinct Liberal-Democrat partners, Cameron has constructed the option of a referendum contingent upon the Conservatives winning the next elections.

Despite some question about how far Cameron wants to push the EU, the EU has, predictably, responded negatively to his proposal for UK exceptionalism. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called Cameron’s proposal “cherry picking” and the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the UK could not choose “a la carte” from the EU’s menu of agreements. For the EU to work, they say, members have to be equally committed.

But, at this stage, it may be that Cameron is gambling on reaching a watered down agreement which he can then use as a sop to disgruntled UK voters in 2015. Either that, or the cost of leaving the EU is, to a party long sceptical about it in the first place, less than the cost of losing the 2015 elections.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

6
  • 1
    Mike Flanagan
    Posted Thursday, 24 January 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to Prof Damien but I think Angela Merkel will teach him how to whistle “Dixie” on his finely tuned british lone-some-ness.

  • 2
    Posted Thursday, 24 January 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    It is true that the European Union suffers from a ‘democratic deficit’, due (partly) to the EU Parliament not having enough powers. But leaving the EU would damage the UK greatly.

    The UK Government doesn’t do enough to build popular support for Europe. London is plastered with union jacks but it is hard to spot an EU flag flying. In contrast, EU flags are all over Berlin while the German flag is not so ubiquitous.

    It seems the 2015 UK election is going to be a de facto referendum on UK’s membership of the EU.

  • 3
    Doug
    Posted Thursday, 24 January 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    One thing that is blatantly missing from this analysis is the internal politics of the UK and the push for Scottish Independence within the EU, where the ‘Better Together’ campaign (Lab, Con and Lib-Dem) have run hard on Scotland having an uncertain future as they claim Scotland would be expelled from the EU as an independent country. It now looks like the only way for Scotland to remain in the EU will be to vote for Independence.

  • 4
    j.oneill
    Posted Thursday, 24 January 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    When Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s attempt to join the EU in the early 1960s he did so partly on the grounds that he was not convinced that the British were committed Europeans. Nothing has happened in the intervening half century to suggest that de Gaulle was wrong.

    This was true long before Scottish independence was a serious prospect. The point Gavin Moodie makes is a valid one. Although symbolic, the comparative absence of EU flags in the UK is deeply telling on a number of levels.

    If there is a genuine referendum on the question of continued UK membership the pools suggest that a solid majority will vote to opt out. That will be Britain’s loss and the EU’s gain. Who really wants to remain in union with such a difficult, self-interested and uncommitted partner?

  • 5
    Jim Moore
    Posted Thursday, 24 January 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    There was no need to use the “PIGS” acronym in this article as it is written just the once. Unless, that is, the writer just wanted to stick it to the spicks and micks again with this highly derogatory term.

  • 6
    Adam Smith
    Posted Friday, 25 January 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Reading the Professors article it seems to me that the British TORY Conservatives may have a kind of identity crisis. Why? To the best of my understanding of British/European history, It was Winston Churchill amongst others, who campaigned for the establishment of European Union. I can only imagine that should the great people of Britain decide to resign from the European Union, they’ll have to reinvent themselves by creating new trading blocks so as to preserve their current capital base. Who knows, they (The Tories) might even see a kind of renewal of empire with other nations, even here in Australia and New Zealand. In any event, it will be interesting times as nations emerge out of that terrible GFC.

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