David Cameron Needs a Vision for the Future of Europe

map-europe-carMatt Wood, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield, analyses David Cameron’s recent attempts at negotiating reform of the EU. As Cameron concentrates on the UK’s position within the EU, is he missing the opportunity to secure allies by ignoring how EU reform could benefit all member states in the future?

If David Cameron can’t convince the Polish Prime minister of the need for change in the EU, it’s fair to say he’s going to have trouble convincing many leaders at all of his renegotiation ‘package’. Beata Szydlo, Poland’s newly elected, arch-right wing premier, stated that she could not accept Cameron’s proposal to curb access to benefits for migrants within the EU, claiming that she did ‘not see eye to eye’ with the UK Prime Minister. One of the key reasons for the difficulties in renegotiation has been the lack of vision about a broader future for the EU, which has failed to bring on board otherwise agreeable partners. Here I’m going to suggest Britain’s renegotiations need to provoke a rethink of the whole landscape of the EU, beyond the ‘froth and nonsense’ of migrant in-work benefits, as one Tory Minister put it. Doing so may well be necessary for Cameron to secure the support he currently lacks for a renegotiation deal.

The Big Picture: Britain will still be ‘in’ Europe no matter what

Much of the recent debate about Britain’s future in the EU has focused, understandably so, on the forthcoming referendum and how to avert (or indeed push forward) ‘Brexit’. The debate swings between ‘apocalyptic’ visions of either a Britain ostracized from its key allies and trading partners, or alternatively flooded by migrants and refugees. But perhaps what’s most ignored in these debates is that, whether in or out of this strange ‘beast’ called the European Union, with its labyrinthine institutions and quirky procedures, Britain will still be ‘in’ Europe no matter what. Even Nigel Farage can’t shift the Earth’s tectonic plates and move the entire United Kingdom to a different part of the world. Especially in such a regionally interdependent economy and society, the reactionary claim to ‘take back control of our borders’ is very difficult, whether it is the ‘will of the people’ or not. The refugee crisis will not go away, nor will Greece’s debt crisis, nor the imperative of tackling climate change.

Whether in or out of Europe, these problems will remain, and they will be as impenetrable and complex as they are now, if not more so. Perhaps the more important question is the big picture one – what should European governance look like? How should European countries cooperate, and how can the EU be accepted as democratically legitimate by its citizens? Until recently, there has been a fairly settled idea among European elites that ‘ever closer union’, in terms of market liberalization and (slow, muddled) political integration, is the broad aim. However, this ‘permissive consensus’ has turned into a ‘constraining dissensus’, and on both the right and left, there is an open field to re-think the terms of EU integration. The old notion that integration was inherently progressive has been severely challenged by the economic and refugee crises of this year.

Renegotiating What? Cameron’s unique window of opportunity for change

In this context, David Cameron’s renegotiation proposal creates a window of opportunity for change that hasn’t existed in the EU for many years. But up until now the renegotiation seems to have been more about negotiating the complex politics of securing a ‘remain’ vote in the referendum, rather than proposing how the EU might be organised in the future, at a broad level. Doing the latter though, may be necessary for securing support from reticent member states for a successful renegotiation deal. If we look at what Cameron is proposing in his renegotiation letter, we can’t see very much in the way of vision of how the EU should look. His key demands cut across four areas:

  1. Economic: ‘no discrimination and no disadvantage for any business on the basis of the currency of their country’.
  2. Competititveness: ‘do more to fulfil its commitment to the free flow of capital, goods and services’
  1. Sovereignty: ‘end Britain’s obligation to work towards an “ever closer union” as set out in the Treaty’
  1. Immigration: ‘to reduce the current very high level of population flows from within the EU into the UK’

Cameron’s demands are not entirely unshared by other countries. As noted in the letter, the Netherlands has previously stated a guiding principle of the Union should be: “Europe where necessary, national where possible”. Indeed, subsidiarity was one of the key issues prevailing through the Lisbon Treaty over a decade ago. Scrutinising the language in the proposals though, it is not difficult to see why he is having such a tough time getting them through. The way in which they are pitched often seems to indicate some special pleading from the UK, rather than solid proposal of reforms to the Union as a whole.

Some points, for example on managing the existence of more than one currency in the Union, and the issue of subsidiarity in economic policy, do address significant issues. They do not, however, speak to the ECB’s apparent ability to force countries like Greece to adopt fiscal rectitude, which earlier this year created all sorts of issues around democracy and subsidiarity. Some are fairly banal, like a renewed commitment to ‘competitiveness’. Others seem inexplicably to ignore some of the difficulties and tensions experienced by other member states. The very fact Cameron addresses the issue of immigration as ‘flows from within the EU into the UK’ suggests he already views the UK as separate from the EU, and as having some sort of privileged or exceptional problem when it comes to migration. As if the UK’s welfare system is somehow singularly attractive to anyone from Europe who would willfully up sticks to re-settle away from their friends and culture. The statistics on migration clearly do not bear this out, indeed if any member states are struggling to cope at the moment, it is those dealing with a totemic refugee crisis (Germany, Hungary, Greece) barely addressed in Cameron’s letter. There is a danger that the UK’s renegotiation package smells of more than a whiff of arrogance to some other member states.

The Everyday Workings of Europe

More generally though, the UK proposals could also take into account how in some cases the EU is deeply embedded in how policy works in Europe. The refugee crisis has stretched the Union’s common policy on asylum to breaking point, and the terrorist atrocities in Paris have created a sense of urgency for reform. At an everyday level though, the EU continues to coordinate policies in all kinds of areas that are highly respected and acknowledged as legitimate by almost all countries, including the UK. In aviation for example, the European Aviation Safety Authority has been at the forefront of developing and implementing new safety guidelines across Europe since this year’s tragic Germanwings crash. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention works with the World Health Organization to report the development of health threats like the Zika virus. The European Food Safety Agency has opened a new database to help consumers measure their nutrient intake, while the European Medicines Agency is developing ways to bring down the cost of new medicines across Europe. These agencies high levels of trust and support from all member countries, including those in the UK.

The EU is also slowly democratising. The Commission has created a European Citizens’ Initiative, which, while nascent, could allow the public a more direct say in the affairs of the Commission and Parliament. Recently citizens’ initiatives have been launched on Greece’s public debt and fundamental rights in Hungary. At present, debate on the EU’s future barely accounts for all these more ‘everyday’ activities, what their potential and future is in a reformed agenda for integration, and how member states and citizens can reap the economic and democratic benefits.

Scanning the Horizons

The future of the EU, then, is not something that should be limited to discussions about the ifs and whens of ‘Brexit’, ‘Grexit’, or any ‘exit’, but should scan the horizons of the system as a whole. Cameron’s proposals, seen from this perspective, seem relatively peripheral to some of the fundamental issues faced by the continent. If he had pitched them less as a set of ‘demands’ from the UK, than as a pitch for the future of the EU system as a whole, bringing in other member states to a discussion over, for example, the future of Schengen, the democratic form of core institutions, and the ability of states to determine their own fiscal policies, he could have a much better chance of gaining support. Moreover, he could connect with the debates already being led on these issues, for example by Germany, Greece and Turkey on the refugee crisis.

Perhaps this is a hangover from the view in Britain that it is ‘exceptional’ – geographically, historically, culturally, economically – to the rest of Europe. The proposals are, clearly, an artifact of domestic politics more than transnational statesmanship. Cameron wants to be seen as tough on benefits, tough on immigration, and driving a ‘hard bargain’ with the woolly Eurocrats in Brussels. But if he’s going to succeed in negotiating a new deal for the UK in Europe, its difficult to see how he can do so successfully without offering other member states at least some incentive to engage with the proposals.

This might be a moment for Cameron, and other leaders to step in and ask ‘what would a legitimate European Union really look like?’. They could consider how the institutions and processes making EU policy could be democratised – the Commission, the comitology system, the decentralised agencies, etc. They could look at how the sovereignty of nations within the Eurozone could be genuinely protected when there is real conflict between the ‘will of the people’ and the integrity of monetary union, as in the Greek crisis. They could look at the potential for genuine citizen engagement with EU decision-making – through citizens’ assemblies and the like, which are growing in popularity in the UK.

Ultimately, such discussions may have little influence on how the British electorate votes – the referendum looks like it will go down to the wire and be based around general perceptions of Britain’s national ‘interest’. But these are genuine, critical questions raised by the EU’s legitimacy crisis. If leaders like Cameron are serious about addressing them and creating a viable and sustainable future for the Union that appeals across the continent, they ought to start addressing them.


Dr Matthew Wood is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the recipient of an ESRC Future Research Leaders grant.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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