British Prime Minister David Cameron was due to deliver his much anticipated speech on the future of Britain’s relationship with the European Union next week. Overnight he cancelled to focus on the Algerian hostage crisis. But the reshaping of European politics will wait for no one.
Frictions began once Germany signalled it wanted a review of the Lisbon Treaty; if a review was to occur member states would have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms. Cameron was set to seize the opportunity with a reportedly “definitive” speech on the future of British-EU relations.
Most thought Cameron would state the Conservative manifesto on Europe: major treaty revisions would be used as an opportunity to push forward new eurozone governance agreements to repatriate decision-making powers back to Britain. There was also talk Cameron would have suggested that any “new settlement” in which powers may be repatriated should be put to the British voters in a referendum.
What Cameron and the Tories didn’t bank on was the possibility of the Germans walking away before the negotiations even began. Last week, news emerged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had given up on the idea of revising the Lisbon agreement.
Before last week’s revelation, it appeared Cameron was almost pandering to Euro-scepticism within his own party and the far Right in the form of the UK Independence Party. His Chancellor George Osborne even made it clear Britain was willing to exit the EU if negotiations didn’t go their way. The threat was strong enough to elicit comment from Germany, as well as from the United States.
The Germans criticised Cameron for effectively blackmailing the EU and warned of the potential economic disaster that would await a British exit. While Euro-sceptics have pointed to Switzerland and Norway as examples of western European countries that have flourished without EU membership, the reality remains that in the current economic climate it is hard to compare Britain with one country that is rich with natural resources and another renowned for the security and secrecy of its banking and financial sector.
And with a long road to recovery ahead, an EU exit would be disastrous for the British economy. Britain could potentially lose access to a single market of over 500 million people as well as disrupt existing multiple bilateral agreements, cost jobs and put Britain’s economic recovery at risk. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned that even discussion of exiting the EU could discourage businesses from investing in the UK by adding a degree of uncertainty as an exit take several years.
And Cameron has received a warning from the Obama administration suggesting that while it was up to Britain to define its relationship with the EU, it’s in the interests of the “special relationship” that a “strong British voice” remains within an “outward looking European Union”.
It’s hard not to view Cameron’s strategy as a cynical ploy to ride out a current wave of Euro-sceptism that has arisen from the ongoing eurozone crisis. Cameron might also be heartened from his walk out of negotiations on the Fiscal Compact last January.
Perhaps rather than accusations of blackmail, Brussels could just call Cameron’s bluff — without treaty negotiations in place, Cameron’s strategy appears far more provocative and unrealistic. It remains to be seen how Britain can prosper outside the EU, or why a referendum is necessary without the opportunity to actually negotiate the repatriation of powers back to the UK.
There’ll never be a “right” time for Britain to seriously contemplate an exit from the EU. The eurozone crisis may have exposed the weaknesses of EU legislation and policy, with a greater need for revision and review, but with Britain’s economic recovery at stake Cameron would be foolish to proceed without a solid exit strategy or even the support of other member states on negotiating the repatriation of powers. What once seemed like Cameron’s defining moment could now just be a sheepish footnote in the story of British-EU relations.
*Keshia Jacotine is an Australian-based researcher and writer focusing on international relations and the European Union