The opening salvo: Cameron’s wish list for Europe (11/13)     Print Email
Friday, 13 November 2015

The British Prime Minister David Cameron has finally announced what he would like to achieve by negotiating with the European Union about Britain’s future role in the EU. Or has he? In a letter sent to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk there is little to suggest that Cameron is about to enter the decisive phase of the negotiations on the basis of a specific list of detailed requests. Cameron outlines some generic and already well-known areas in which Britain would like to see progress.
1) Economic governance:
Cameron recognizes and accepts that Europe has multiple speeds. The monetary union needs to integrate further. A weak common currency area is not in Britain’s interest as it will dampen growth in the whole of Europe and therefore adversely affect the UK as well. Indeed, Cameron is suggesting to his partners to accelerate the journey towards a more perfect monetary union. He just wants to make sure that he and his country won’t be dragged into moving into a similar direction. While he assures his euro area partners that the UK is not going to stand in the way he is also asking them to accept that decisions that “affect all Member States must be decided by all Member States.” How to define the line that divides decisions that merely have an impact on the euro area from those that matter for all members of the Union will not be easy, at least not as long as there is no shared grand strategy that is going to take the Monetary Union towards a “more perfect union”. Given the widespread ‘rabbit in the headline’ syndrome that has gripped many European leaders, anxious about the rise of populism in their own countries, any bold move towards more Europe is currently perceived as counterproductive domestically. Hence the reluctance to recognize that the time for some fundamental decisions has come. The paradox is that any further indecisiveness about Europe may even contribute to rising disenchantment and growing euro-skepticism. 
2) Competitiveness:
This is an area in which Britain and its partners can easily find an agreement. Indeed, Cameron explicitly welcomes recent EC initiatives, such as developing a Single Digital Market, a truly integrated Capital Markets Union (CMU), as well as promoting trade. Completing the single market has always been a priority for British governments. Cameron is no exception.
3) Sovereignty:
Mario Draghi, President of the ECB had to remind a London audience this week that for a single market to function properly it needs common institutions based on the concept of shared sovereignty. It was another way of saying to Britain that it can’t have the cake and eat it. Yet, the Prime Minister is determined to end the obligation to work towards “and ever closer union” and intends to achieve this goal in a legally binding, permanent way. I would expect any agreement on sovereignty to be more about the language and less about substance. However, opting out on an ever-closer union opens the possibility for other European partners to insert their own wish list. From a European perspective what needs to be avoided is the impression that the EU is morphing into a union a la carte, which is very different from and far worse than a multi speed Europe in which at least everybody is still traveling in the same direction.
4) Which brings us to the fourth request Cameron is making, curbing immigration:
Cameron claims that the UK is already reaching its limits on the capacity to absorb new immigrants and therefore argues that it won’t be sufficient to merely control immigration from outside the EU. What is needed, according to the Prime Minister are limits within the EU as well and cracking down on the abuse of welfare benefits by non-British citizens.  This is by far the toughest sell to European partners and puts Cameron at odds with the principles of free movement on which the EU rests. Furthermore Cameron risks alienating the EU governments in Eastern Europe that he counts on for garnering the necessary support for British demands. In a first reaction to the letter Donald Tusk, who is a Polish citizen, acknowledged that it could be very hard to find a majority in European capitals for the British proposals. Given the stress already caused to the EU by the refugee crisis, it could indeed become problematic very quickly to allow for the refugee crisis, curbs on economic migration and freedom of movement within the EU to be lumped together in a combustible mix. 
Overall though, the British proposals are likely to finally allow for a few months of very public and very raucous negotiations.  In the end, what the UK and the rest of Europe need is to agree on as little changes as possible, but to do so with as much fanfare as necessary in order to create the impression of a real, contentious negotiation, yet another defining moment in the history of the EU. What will matter far more than the actual wording of any compromise is how British citizens will view it. 
The underlying lesson for Cameron and other leaders should be that pandering to populism always carries a risk. It would have been far more courageous to challenge the euroskeptics head on rather than to jeopardize the long-term interests of the UK and its place in the world. Whether he would have been the right man to do so is an entirely different question.