David Cameron’s veto on the European fiscal treaty in December last year has raised much debate. His recent wobble on this issue has prompted some commentators to accuse him of a U-turn, ultimately implying that his initial veto lacked purpose.
A French contributor to the BBC programme Dateline London summed it up: ‘Sarkozy must be wondering what Cameron’s position actually is. It makes little sense. Either engage more closely with Europe or get out!’
I have articulated my view on the veto previously on these pages, so there is no need to repeat it here. However I do disagree fundamentally with the ‘either-or’ view that is often expressed in the media when it comes to Europe.
First of all, let’s remember one thing: the British position has always been one of polite distance to the European project of further political integration. This is not a policy originating with Cameron’s coalition. Only months after his first election victory, Tony Blair noisily announced that he will take Britain to ‘the heart of Europe’, and promptly forgot about it. The best thing one can say about Blair’s engagement with Europe is that it was one of cautious engagement when it suited his domestic agenda. In fact, there is little evidence that much of what was going on in Europe was ever more than an annoyance to Blair. That was one of the reasons that his bid for the European Presidency failed. Britain under Blair was nowhere near the centre of Europe.
And how could it be otherwise? The fact is that Europe is a two speed continent, and has been for some time: one part of Europe pursuing economic and political integration, while the other keeping its distance.
So if Britain’s European policy has not changed much, why the call to ‘either join or get lost’ from some other European partners? Why the ire for ‘British intransigence’ when it came to the veto?
The real threat to the European politicians who cannot wait to have powers transferred to an unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels is that Cameron’s vision of Europe as an economic trade zone may gain track with some of the people across Europe who are tired of failed European institutions and backroom stitch ups for plum jobs for their clapped out national politicians.
Just like Margaret Thatcher before him, Cameron has formulated an alternative vision that commands supreme legitimacy: the maintenance of national democracies combined in a free trading area across Europe. His insistence that such a Europe based on free trade and free markets is viable, forces Sarkozy, Merkel and others to articulate the advantages of their vision in much more detail.
Without Cameron’s alternative vision, Europe would be driven by a political project that has little more to its name than the logic of the French-German relationship. For Britain this may never be sufficient as a basis of pan-European policy. And in that, Cameron is right. It is not a question of ‘in or out’. It is a question of what the ultimate purpose of Europe should be. Britain may continue to find a different answer to this question to other nations.
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