EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

We got all we wanted” – that was the main message that David Cameron aimed to convey to the Members of Parliament when he addressed the House of Commons upon returning from the European Council meeting on 22 February. The list of improvements he claimed to have won for his fellow countrymen was so long that it made for a fifteen minute speech just naming one after another. However, apart from ardent Tory Eurosceptics, many sober observers do not buy into this rosy picture, claiming that in reality, the new settlement brought about only cosmetic changes.

In spite of certain undeniable achievements, the deal is certainly not what the Prime Minister had in mind when he called for ‘fundamental, far-reaching change’ of the European Union in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013. Beginning the renegotiation process, he even expressed hopes for treaty change. Three years later, his rhetoric has clearly changed, in a paradigm shift from a reformed EU to a ‘special status’ for the United Kingdom. This comes not only as a disappointment for Britain, but also as a major missed opportunity for the EU, which could’ve used it as a catalyst to profoundly transform itself.

Paradoxically, the basis for a historic referendum is a deal that’s not that much of a game-changer. And it might be well forgotten long before the voting rooms open.

Paradoxically, the basis for a historic referendum is thus a deal that’s not that much of a game-changer. And it might be well forgotten long before the voting rooms open on 23 June 2016. Already two days after the agreement with the EU, the scene has been seized by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s joining the out campaign. Experts agree that the substance of the new deal will be largely irrelevant in the run-up to the referendum which is likely to be driven by personalities and topics mainly unrelated to the deal such as national security.

Pundits warn that we’re in for a rather negative campaign. ‘Even those who want to stay do not like the EU. The case for staying is that leaving would be worse,’ explains Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at King’s College. It follows from this that even after the ballot boxes close on that Thursday night in June, provided the result is to remain, it won’t bring a permanent solution to the troubled relationship. Some of the concrete issues that fuelled the referendum, such as migration, will not go away. And criticising Europe is likely to continue even more so if Boris Johnson becomes the next leader of the Conservative Party on the back of Euroscepticism.

Some of the concrete issues that fuelled the referendum, such as migration, will not go away. And criticising Europe is likely to continue.

As much as this is disturbing for those who wish UK remains firmly embedded in the EU, there is little they can do about it. On the contrary. After months of frenzied negotiations and struggle to find common ground, this is it for the EU for the moment. The EU institutions in particular should refrain from interfering in the domestic debate in the UK, as attempts to influence it might be counterproductive. After all, the arguments for why Britain should stay are already well known. It has been a vital member of the club not least because of its legacy of support for European integration right from the start, its weight in foreign affairs, economic and military power. And given its commitment to liberal democracy, its place in the EU has become even more essential to counterbalance the rising populism and conservativism in some parts of it. Nevertheless, there is one thing that the EU can do to poke the decision process. Floating the fundamental, but largely missing question of what is the alternative to EU membership could be a helpful way to tip the odds.

Zuzana Picková

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