[FEATURE] David Cameron’s EU Speech

cameron eu 6On January 23rd, the day following the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty (which, as mentioned in an earlier post,  was a key moment in the construction of the European Union), the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave an important speech addressing the future of the EU, and also the futures of the Tory party in the UK.

Besides addressing two different sets of worries, the speech was necessarily directed at two different audiences, which resulted  in a difficult balancing work, trying to combine and present these as one coherent program – probably reflecting Cameron’s own complex position on the issue, as well.

The two major problems identified in the address are the crisis of the Euro zone (or, on a broader scale, the economic competitiveness of Europe facing the rising economies of Asia) and the crisis of democratic legitimacy of the EU’s governance structures; briefly put, prosperity & popular support.

Nobody would disagree with this twin diagnosis; many would, however, with the solutions proposed by the British PM. Even more so, it is highly debatable if the very definition of the EU offered in the speech fits the reality of the EU’s origins and purposes, even 50 years on.

In connection with the problem of competitiveness, while pointedly acknowledging what everyone knows, that the EU was built as an answer to centuries of internecine bloody conflict, Cameron argued that the goal of peace has been achieved, and that the central purpose of the Union is now “prosperity.” On the one hand, this reflects to a degree the actual state of affairs; by the nature of things, as generations pass, peace becomes the “normal” state of affairs. However, it would be childish to think that peace is ever the “natural” state of affairs; even more so, when only 15 years ago we were struggling to cope with the fact that there were again concentration camps and ethnic cleansing on European land (even if just beyond the borders of the EU).

On the other hand, this is the Prime Minister of the UK and the leader of the Conservative Party playing to his crowd (and this should not be understood in a negative sense – who else would he play to?). This “faux pragmatic” discourse sounds good to the Anglo-Saxon crowd – and, I would dare say, even to the one across the Atlantic – whose understanding of the nature and history of the EU is necessarily thinner or at least slightly different, compared to the people on the continent.

The focus of Cameron’s speech, then, was on the single market, namely on the goals of strengthening it (making it even freer) and thus making it more competitive (goals that are not necessarily associated), and on maintaining the UK’s influence in shaping it. In relation to this latter aspect, he makes the obvious point that, whether inside or outside the common market, the success of the UK economy depends on it.

After re-defining the European Union as being mainly the common market, Cameron addresses this and the other problem of democratic governance by proposing five principles of reform.

First, as said, competitiveness, which is linked to his proposition that the EU, or at least the EU that Britain is interested in, is first and foremost about the single market and its chances in the global economy.

Second, “flexibility” – or a vision of the EU as more of a network, rather than a bloc. That does indeed fit (already) the British position in, and relationship with, the EU, as the UK has opted out (or has negotiated the right to do so) of quite a few key aspects, including the common currency. But this “network” vision of the EU – which in fact pervades his entire proposal – is truly not the Union of today, nor the one that was envisaged initially. It is, after all, the European Union, not the European Network – and the semantics are deeply reflective of the meaning and purpose of this enterprise (one may ad, an enterprise that has been astonishingly successful in achieving its original goals). This “flexibility”, then, is a re-designing of the European Union based on economic purposes, and moving away from the political dimension that is intrinsic to the EU.

The third principle, which is in no way far from the core treaties constituting the EU, but that is indisputably less present (or less than people would want to), is that “power must be able to flow back to Member States, not just away from them”. A version of subsidiarity, in other words – and few people would dispute the need for that, although Cameron’s (and Britain’s) understanding of what this could mean is probably much deeper reaching.

The fourth principle (or objective) he listed is “democratic accountability”. This is just a variation on the principle previously enounced, since it is supposed to mean a devolution of power to the “national parliaments.” As said,  a more specific working out of the previous objective; and again this is a problem that few people would dispute, even if subsidiarity was in the treaties from the beginning, and even if in the Lisbon Treaty the role of national parliaments has been increased significantly.

The fifth objective is about “fairness”, namely that “whatever new arrangements are enacted for the Eurozone, they must work fairly for those inside it and out.” In translation, this seems to be about securing that UK will continue to have a say in EU-level decision-making structures, even if it opts out from more than it has until now. This might qualify as David Cameron “reaching” – but probably not attaining. Britain has always been criticized, and at the highest levels, for wanting to have a say in areas from which it opted out – for example, the governance of the Euro zone.

If the main aim (i.e. direction) of Cameron’s proposed reforms has to do with the economic dimension of the EU, its central aim (as in, the object of his attacks) is the political dimension of the EU. No matter how much this reflects Cameron’s or the Tories’ vision of Europe, this is simply inaccurate and, I’m afraid, slightly irresponsible. Not in the remarks about the need for decisive steps towards implementing subsidiarity, as a living and acting principle, but in reflecting a serious misunderstanding of the role of the political union, and of the very meaning of the economic union. David Cameron might not realize, or might have chosen to ignore the fact, that what he said here goes against the words of the very architect of the economic union, Jean Monnet. For Monnet, who was an economist, and whose main field of work was the economy, the said economic union was but a means towards the overarching goal, which was the building of lasting peace in Europe; and that can only be obtained through shared sovereignty, which is actually the political dimension of the EU. In other words, the economic union means shared sovereignty, and shared sovereignty is the only lasting guarantee of peace.

Indeed, in his speech Cameron seems to have forgotten this essential meaning of the EU project – which precedes the economic union, or of which the economic union is just a form: namely, the sharing of sovereignty. The very first union, from which the rest developed, namely the European Coal and Steel Community, was in fact an exercise in “shared sovereignty” over key war- and peace-time resources, between two (recent) enemies, Germany and France, together with the Benelux states. Just like those resources had been used during the preceding two centuries, to impose one country’s sovereign interests over and across the other countries’, the creation of the ECSC was a way of moving from competing (or even inimical, warring) sovereignties, to a shared community of destiny. As Cameron himself states, towards the end of his speech, no political or economic decision will ever change the reality of the fact that the UK was, is, and will remain inextricably part of Europe – geographically, economically, politically.

The question mark, then, is whether his “European Union as a variable-speed network with an economic purpose” is or can be a reality, both in terms of actual feasibility, and of the will of the European citizens. As said, this is a faux pragmatic vision that has certain appeal among a section of the Anglo-Saxon crowd (or its commentators), but probably does not reflect what the EU means for the rest of the member states. It also somewhat contradicts another dimension, which Cameron mentioned as something that the UK should not lose, but which he inadvertently undermined with this overwhelming emphasis on the economic dimension – namely, the EU’s influence in international affairs, without which Britain would be a much weaker actor on the international scene (something Cameron specifically points out towards the end of the speech).

What is then the future – both as envisaged, and as actually planned, by the leader of the Tory party? Under his leadership, Her Majesty’s government will start the efforts to either negotiate a new treaty within the EU, in the directions already proposed (emphasis on “network”), or will unilaterally negotiate a different, special relationship of the UK with the EU. In other words, either the EU changes in structure and functioning, or the UK redefines its relationship with it, somewhat as an outsider. After this process takes place, but no later than 2017 (the middle of the next mandate for whoever will form the government in Britain after the 2015 elections), the British government will call for a referendum in the UK, on the subject of being “in” or “out” of the thus re-defined arrangement. Of course, this supposes that the Tories will still be in power – and in many ways this speech was enounced with a view to the 2015 elections, addressing the mostly EU-skeptical British public and Tory supporters, and not forgetting the recent relative success of the Euro-skeptic UKIP.

For himself, Cameron staked out the position of a determined supporter of the thus re-defined European Union (or of the British association with it).

Because I believe something very deeply. That Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it. Over the coming weeks, months and years, I will not rest until this debate is won.

nick clegg 2

Nick Clegg

The reactions to this speech, which seems to put the Tories on a collision-course of one kind or another, were of course swift, both internationally and within the UK. Internationally (see reactions), while many acknowledged the reality of some of the problems identified, the importance of UK membership, and also a history of patchy relationships with the many aspects of the EU, the general attitude is perhaps well-illustrated by the words of Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt: “Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess.” Internally, the situation is that both the Tories’ partners in the governing coalition, the Liberal-Democrats, as well as the opposition Labour Party, are opposed to these and any such Euro-skeptic-looking plans. On the other hand, at a popular level, Cameron probably never enjoyed such popularity and positive media coverage (see national reactions). Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK – and leader of the LibDems – came out the same day with a critical stance on Cameron’s point of view – and on his plans, for that matter.

Read the entire speech of the British PM, or watch it below:

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