In his speech on Europe yesterday, David Cameron spoke not as Prime Minister but as a Tory party leader backed into a corner by his outspoken tea-party backbenchers. It was never going to be possible to appease his own right-wing and at the same time reassure his European partners. By promising an in-out referendum following an anticipated but far from certain renegotiated EU treaty by 2017, he has chosen to prioritise party political interests.
As a result, the UK will lose further influence in Europe as other Member States anticipate a “Brexit” and discount the UK’s views altogether. Even worse, he has put the national interest at risk by creating a climate of uncertainty for potential investors, who no longer know for sure whether the terms of access to the EU single market of 500 million people and the UK’s participation in EU’s Free Trade Agreements will change in the near future.
Instead of focusing all efforts on getting the British economy back on track, the Conservative party will now be tied up in its own internal renegotiation discussions that have very little to do with the reality of treaty change among 27 member states.
The vision for renegotiation spelt out by David Cameron today was notable for its vagueness and inconsistencies. At the same time as insisting that nations must ‘work together against terrorism and organised crime’, he also demands a return of EU police and security cooperation measures. Asking for a common set of rules for the Single Market along with measures to enforce them, he goes on to say that it is wrong to hanker after a level playing field.
The old arguments he dragged out, such as democratic accountability, are problems made in Britain, caused by a lack of clear explanation from ministers in this or indeed previous governments about how the doubly-democratic process of EU co-decision actually works. EU rules are negotiated between directly elected Members of the European Parliament and national ministers in the Council.
Most profoundly, Cameron fails to understand that British influence can only be strengthened in Europe by the UK becoming more engaged, more central to the debate, not less. Liberal Democrats want to see us working much earlier and deeper with our European partners to ensure that EU rules are in the UK’s interest. The more Britain can establish itself as mainstream not peripheral, the more our influence on the direction and thrust of EU policy and legislation. If we want an EU that further supports and develops the single market so vital to UK industry and services – then we need to be on a par with France and Germany as EU opinion formers.
* Fiona Hall is Leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Delegation in the European Parliament and MEP for the North East of England.