Wednesday 23 January 2013

More or less Europe, that is the question

The wait is over. After several delays, Cameron has finally delivered his lecture on Europe. He sketched the main parameters of Conservative European policy for the time after the next election. The shopping list is long, including the repatriation of powers from Brussels to the legitimate home of democracy, Westminster; and an 'in-out' referendum, once the new contract between Britain and the EU is drawn up.

Was this worth the wait? The lecture was certainly what most Brits expect their politicians to tackle: the nauseating interference of European bureaucrats in the daily life of British people, a flood of directives and laws from an unelected and illegitimate European Commission, and a promise to finally give people a say in the way in which Britain negotiates its relationship with Europe.

Whilst some of the reactions from abroad have been hostile to say the least, few politicians in Germany or France understand the real motives of Cameron. Most observers note that Cameron's chances to be re-elected depend on defeating the challenge from the right, that has emerged from some of his own back benchers and UKIP.

But the real motivation for Cameron's determination to re-negotiate the British bargain with Europe lies elsewhere. It is his deeply felt belief that European institutions lack legitimacy and have so for some time. This may not bother German or French politicians. Thomas Nipperdey, a German historian, wrote eloquently about the view of Germans to see 'the state and national bureaucracy as a true and impartial agent of freedom' (Nipperdey: Arbeitswelt und Buergergeist, p.592) as opposed to party political dispute which is widely perceived by Germans as bickering and an expression of narrow self-interests.

In other words, Germans may see European bureaucrats as the paragon of political altruism, where British people only see illegitimate and unelected pencil pushers. I have previously argued here that the Euro-crisis may force German politicians to think hard about the lack of legitimacy of the European Commission as it takes on budget-reviewing and monitoring powers. Yet, in any reform effort, the key element would have to focus on the weakest component of European institutions, the European Parliament, which hardly deserves the name given that its members are often elected with fewer votes than the local yacht club treasurer and have no power to hold the European Commission to account.

But a reform of the European Parliament would require political resolve from national politicians to transfer even more powers to an institution that has hardly left any positive impressions over the last 30 years. Such a move would be tantamount to political suicide. And so we muddle on.

Only, that Cameron has now put a stop sign up. He has clearly signaled that muddling through is not an option anymore for the British electorate. His courage to force the issue is to be commended. And although Labour is carping from the sidelines, even the leader of the opposition rushed to announce that a repatriation of some powers would be in order. The real question is whether Cameron has enough political capital in Europe to re-negotiate Britain's relationship with Europe. He will need strong allies with a similar agenda. Yet, of those there are very few indeed. It may be a sign how isolated Britain is with its wish for less integration. But then, you have to stand up for what you believe, and Cameron is about to do this.

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