Britain’s "Romney" Wants a Leaner, Meaner Europe

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to launch a debate over Europe’s future that would echo many of the arguments that preceded last year’s U.S. presidential election and still dominate large swathes of the American political landscape. The pity is that it probably won’t happen.

In a long-awaited speech on British policy toward the European Union on Wednesday, Cameron outlined a Romneyesque vision of a more competitive, less bureaucratic, and market-driven Europe stripped of restrictive labor practices, excessive regulation, and massive, unaffordable welfare spending.

He called for powers to be returned from central control in Brussels to member governments—in much the same way that Republicans generally want more done at state level in the United States—and, in true conservative fashion, expressed a clear preference for practical economics over idealism.

Cameron said he wanted Britain to be part of this leaner, meaner, more flexible and open European Union; “I am not a British isolationist”, he stressed in his London speech. But he laid out a pathway for possible British departure by announcing plans to negotiate a “new settlement” of the terms of British membership, to be followed by an “in or out” referendum assuming his Conservative party wins the next British Parliamentary election, expected in 2015.

Sadly, Cameron’s call to reexamine the underlying political and economic structures of the European Union will mostly be ignored. Other EU countries, particularly France and Germany, immediately accused Cameron of trying to “cherry-pick” the conditions on which Britain would continue as a member or, worse, seeking a “Europe à la carte” – one of the cardinal sins in the traditional Brussels demonology.

Reactions to his speech, both at home and abroad, are likely to place it in the context of British domestic politics, and British-EU relations, rather than treat it as a serious basis for tackling broader, much-needed European reforms. That is unfortunately understandable, given the reasons why Cameron gave the speech in the first place.

Cameron backed a referendum largely to appease growing anti-EU feeling in Britain - and notably in the ranks of his own Conservative Party, which risks splitting (yet again) over Europe. In a recent poll 82 percent of Britons favored an EU referendum, and a majority would probably vote to leave if it were held today. The anti-EU UK Independence Party has surged and is now well ahead of the minority partner in Cameron’s coalition, the pro-EU Liberal Democrats.

Cameron’s Conservatives trail the opposition Labour Party by ten to 12 points, although his support is expected to rise following his referendum pledge, which may in turn cause Labour to modify its hostility to such a vote. The main question facing Cameron is whether he can continue to fob off the euroskeptics with the promise of a referendum in four to five years’ time. They could still bring him down.

His whole plan will collapse anyway if, as is quite possible, the Conservatives lose the next election. Even if they win, Cameron gave no hint as to how he would act if he found the terms of a “new settlement” unsatisfactory. If he is happy with the outcome, he promises to campaign vigorously for a “yes” vote in the referendum.

Nevertheless, Cameron gave one of the best explanations, and justifications, of British attitudes to Europe ever proffered by a UK leader. The speech is well worth reading in its entirety. Speaking as a proud “heretic,” Cameron said a pragmatic Britain rejected the EU founding treaty’s goal of “ever closer union” and would never join the euro, though it wanted the euro to succeed.

 “For us the European Union is a means to an end—prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores—not an end in itself,” he said. Addressing the “cherry-picking” charge, he said the EU should be flexible enough to accommodate the different interests of all its members.

“We must not be weighed down by an insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach, which implies that all countries want the same level of integration,” Cameron said. Most Britons felt that the EU “is now heading to a level of political integration that is far outside Britain’s comfort zone.”

That is the second reason why Cameron has taken his stand now. Efforts to strengthen the 17-nation Eurozone’s currency union will create a more integrated hard core of countries, fundamentally changing the nature of the EU in a more federalist direction with the risk of consigning Britain to a much less influential outer circle.

Cameron’s argument that the British people should approve the new-look EU is perfectly reasonable. The problem is that most Eurozone countries will not welcome having to negotiate once again with the fractious British when they already have enough on their plates. On the one hand, since World War II Britain has never found a relationship with continental Europe with which it is truly comfortable. On the other, the Continent is running out of patience.

So, even if they agree to negotiate with London, the Continentals are unlikely to listen to Cameron’s plea for radical, free market reforms to deal with the “crisis of European competitiveness, as other nations across the world soar ahead,” or to heed his valid assertion that “there is a growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf.”

They won’t appreciate his pointing out that while Europe accounts for just over seven percent of world population, and around 25 percent of world GDP, it has to finance 50 percent of global social spending. Although the scale is different, such arguments did not persuade Americans to elect a Republican President in November 2012. Even if Cameron succeeds in provoking a U.S-style debate in Europe, he risks finding most other EU governments—even those supposedly from the center-right—on the Obama side of the argument.

Reginald Dale is director of the Transatlantic Media Network and a senior fellow in the Europe Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Reginald Dale