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Little support

Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / csc January 24, 2013

In a long-awaited speech, British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for extensive reform of the EU, and announced a referendum on British membership. But many in the EU don't like his attitude.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (Photo: Olivia Harris/REUTERS)
David CameronImage: Reuters

British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't see himself as a "British isolationist," and he doesn't want "to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world," but he does want "a better deal for Britain."

But in his long-awaited speech on Wednesday (23.01.2013), he also insisted that he wanted "not just a better deal for Britain; I want a better deal for Europe too."

The British prime minister believes that the EU is too rigid, not competitive enough, over-regulated and too far from its citizens. And it could be "transformed perhaps beyond recognition by the measures to save the eurozone."

That's not the EU that Cameron wants. What he wants, above all, is a single market. And he wants to take powers back from Brussels - if necessary, by changing the EU treaties - so that each member country should be able to negotiate its level of integration in the EU.

In his speech, he promised to hold a referendum on the European Union once the necessary debates are over in Europe, and if his party, the Conservatives, comes back to power after the next general election (in 2015).

"When the choice comes, it will be a real one," he said. "A real choice between leaving or being part of a new settlement in which Britain shapes and respects the rules of the single market, but is protected by fair safeguards and free of the spurious regulations that damages Europe's competitiveness."

Cameron made it clear that he would like Britain to remain in the EU, albeit a reformed one.

Commission welcomes debate

Despite the fact that Cameron's attacks were directed mainly at the European Commission, which he described as wasteful, over-regulated and not competitive enough, the Commission was typically restrained in its response.

The British (L) and EU flags hang outside the Europe House in London (Photo: ANDY RAIN/EPA/dpa)
Cameron says he wants a balance between unity and autonomyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"It is very much in the European interest and in the UK's own interest for Britain to be an active member at the center of the European Union," Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde said.

But reaction from the European Parliament was less polite.

"We need Britain as a full member, and not hiding in the port of Dover," Martin Schulz, president of the parliament, wrote on Twitter. Earlier he'd said, "There is no realistic possibility to renegotiate the EU treaties because it doesn't make sense and there's no majority for it."

In a joint rebuff, the heads of the German Christian Democrats in the parliament, Herbert Reul and Markus Ferber, wrote that Cameron was contradicting himself: "Cameron is calling for a de facto market à la carte while saying that the EU must be more competitive. The two things just don't go together."

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal group in the parliament, accused Cameron of "playing with fire" and wanting to blackmail his European partners. There's no way that a single member country would be able to abandon some political areas to which it had agreed, he said.

Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialist group, already said last week that Britain's attempts to seek "changes here, and changes there" was "destroying the strengths of the European Union." To which, Martin Callanan of the British Conservative group, responded that Britain had plenty of allies on this issue in Europe who want the EU to be a more competitive and flexible organization that respects the diversity of the continent.

Merkel appears accommodating

Germany and France, which just commemorated 50 years of their special relationship, had very different reactions to Cameron's speech.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron greets Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) at Downing Street in central London on November 7, 2012. (Photo: Olivia Harris/REUTERS)
Merkel was surprisingly conciliatoryImage: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared accommodating: "Europe always means that fair compromises have to be found. In this framework, we are of course willing to talk about Britain's requests," she said.

But the wishes of other countries also have to be taken into account. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, was sarcastic. Europe, he said in a radio interview, is like a soccer club: "You join the club, but once you are a member, you can't say, 'I think I'll play rugby now.'"

And last week, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, warned that "it would be catastrophic if Britain were to leave the European Union."

Voluntary, not compulsory

Because important parts of the speech had already been leaked, a lot of politicians had already reacted. So Cameron was able to respond to the criticism directly in his speech, especially to the accusation that the EU would be destroyed if every country got to pick how it wants to work with the Union.

"There're some who'll say this will unravel the principle of the EU, and that you can't pick and choose the basis of what your nation needs," he said. "But I would argue that far from unraveling the EU, this will in fact bind its members more closely because such flexible willing cooperation is a much stronger glue than compulsion from the center."

Genie out of the bottle

Even if Cameron is hoping that the EU will move in his direction so that the referendum will keep Britain in the EU, some are already thinking about the consequences of a possible British exit.

A sailboat in Dover
Could the EU end at the white cliffs of Dover?Image: picture-alliance/DUMONT

Swoboda of the Socialists is quite calm about the prospect: "If it would leave, the European Union would not really be weakened," he said. "Of course, the citizens of Britain would be weakened: they would be deprived of some social minimum standards, deprived of some of the civil liberties, of the right to go to European Court."

But Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-European UK Independence Party, is pleased: "This debate will not stop, and I look forward to whether the United Kingdom does get that referendum, and I hope that many other countries will follow our lead, in claiming back their rights of democracy and self-government."

Many observers believe that Cameron is trapped. In an attempt to mollify the euroskeptics in the ranks of his own party, as well as people like Farage, he's let the genie out of the bottle. He won't find it easy to put it back.