The long awaited and long-trailed speech by David Cameron to map out Britain's future relationship with the European Union has taken place. It can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly as a call for reform of the political settlement that binds EU member states. Secondly as a mechanism for silencing opponents of Britain's membership in his own party and the UK Independence Party who threaten to take votes from the Conservatives at next year's European Parliamentary Election. So what was this all about fundamentally?
Cameron started on the attack but finished defending the European Union, but it is the role of the EU in maintaining our, and its other member's, prosperity that he focused on defending. He argued that EU membership is a means to an end: prosperity. The EU is not a means in itself. He argued that the EU is facing three crises:
- a Eurozone crisis which needs governance
- low competitiveness due to failing to allow full access to a single market and while it produces 25% of global GDP, it also is responsible for 50% of social spending
- democratic accountability and the gap between citizens and EU institutions
But, he argued the greatest danger facing the EU is the rejection of new thinking. More of the same is not tenable. This was not purely about highlighting the deficit in governance, economic competitiveness and accountability. Cameron also presented a vision around five principles:
- Flexibility - celebrating diversity as a single market not a single currency and polity
- Power flowing to member states not away - repatriation of power
- Democratic accountability and a stronger role for national parliaments
- Fairness for all nations in and out of the Eurozone
He made sweeping claims about British people being disillusioned with the EU, wanting a common market not a political union, over which they have had no say; this a direct attack on predecessors who shrank away from a referendum. Cameron wants to confront the issue, but not now.
Cameron argued that what is needed is a new settlement for the EU, and that this may be inevitable when the EU emerges from the Eurozone crisis. He wants to negotiate for a new settlement based on his principles, and in that he is not alone as an EU leader. Following those negotiations and redrafting an image of the future of the Union will be presented to the British people at which point an simple in or out choice will be given in a referendum.
So does it matter. Some European leaders will agree and may well work with Cameron to support his five principles. There is much truth in his critique of the workings of the EU, and many agree that reform may be needed and may now be inevitable. But these are only principles, broad brush statements about the future, there is no detail on how these would be instituted. So could this shape the EU, probably not, it will be down to future negotiations among all the leaders of the EU member states. But, Conservative MPs seem favourable and that maybe the more important aspect of the speech. He promised a referendum, delivered a very conservative and neo-liberal critique of the EU, he called for a return to economic not political union: he wore the clothes of the Eurosceptic throughout. But he seems also to have assuaged calls for a referendum now. His defence of the union, and plausible case for why not now may have won the day. So perhaps the internal and domestic political ramifications are more important than the more global impact.
But there is now uncertainty. Sometime, possibly in the next five years there could be a referendum. Possibly Cameron will push for a yes to staying a member but, if the negotiations fail, he may push for a no. How will that uncertainty impact upon our relations within the EU, the relations for pan-European business partnerships? The wider implications are as uncertain as Cameron's proposals and the future relationship between Britain and the European Union