Cameron’s EU defeat: maybe De Gaulle was right all along

David Cameron’s failure to defeat the candidature of Jean-Claude Juncker has been variously described as a humiliation, a catastrophe for Britain, and an example of Cameron’s principle and European leaders cowardice. The Guardian’s Toby Helm has possibly the best analysis of what actually happened, why and how. It seems relatively few EU leaders were keen on Mr. Juncker’s appointment and that there was annoyance at a minor political coup by the EU parliament claiming that the result of the elections mandated Juncker. However, EU leaders and especially Merkel, were not willing to fight the issue when the principle of the candidate of the largest group in the European election becoming President of the European Commission, gained widespread support: especially in the German media. When Merkel accepted Juncker, Cameron’s other potential allies (apart from the Hungarians) left him and rowed in behind Juncker.

Much of the analysis has been whether this episode will weaken Cameron’s hand in the putative renegotiation of Britain’s place in Europe to which he has committed himself. Tories claim it will not hurt him, citing recent suggestions from the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m willing to walk an extra mile to make the argument that ‘OK if you dislike this, it could be done in others ways’.”

Others have pointed to widespread irritation with Cameron’s tactics and behaviour at this and other EU summit meetings as indicative of a reluctance from the other European countries to accede to Cameron and Britain’s demands.

The realities of all this are difficult to understand. On Europe many in Britain (and Europe) adopt positions as dogmatic and ideologically based as any here in Northern Ireland.

The median position on Europe within the United Kingdom is probably supportive of remaining within the EU if significant reforms can be delivered. Those reforms are, however, ones which are likely to be very difficult for many in Europe to stomach – probably most totemic being universal freedom of movement. Preventing uncontrolled mass migration from within the EU seems to be a red line to very many in the UK especially in the East of England / East Midlands which have been most affected by widespread inwards migration. If sufficiently radical reforms are not offered it is very difficult to tell whether the population of the UK would vote to stay in the EU: many think currently they would vote to leave.

In contrast it is very difficult to see many in Europe allowing Britain to tear up cherished concepts such as freedom of movement. Since the remaining restrictions were lifted on the newer accession countries recently, it would be a huge step backwards in the “ever closer union” to see them being re-imposed.

A further difficulty is that, as the recent European election results have shown, the median position in other European countries, most particularly France with the victory of the National Front, is becoming less supportive of the “European Project”. Eurosceptic parties of left and right also did well in Denmark, Greece and Spain.

It is extraordinarily difficult to gauge the typical position of the median European voter. It is difficult in one country (eg the UK) let alone a large country (USA) so finding a typical position amongst the disparate countries of Europe is impossible. However, in so much as a typical position can be determined, and backed up by the occasions when various countries voters have been given referenda, it seems that whilst most Europeans support the EU, they do not necessarily support ever closer union (with the possible exception of the Germans).

This might make one think that Cameron’s job would be made a little easier despite his defeat last week and despite any personal difficulties with the other leaders he may have. It could be suggested that his position – the EU but much looser- is a popular position and one which is gaining in popularity.

That would, however, probably be mistaken. It is likely to be possible to offer the UK enough concessions to make it practically certain that the majority of the electorate will vote to stay in Europe. However, such concessions would probably be unacceptable to others in Europe as they would, unless extended to other countries, give the UK a significant advantage. Furthermore there would be a very grave danger that populations of other European countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands would then demand the same concessions. Hence, offering the UK the concessions needed to keep it in the club would run the risk of a domino effect resulting in many other countries demanding the same concessions and fatally undermining the “ever closer union” project.

As such those in power in Europe and especially those in the EU bureaucracy, although they would prefer the UK to stay in Europe, might well prefer to let her leave than make the concessions needed to make her stay.

That second option (leaving) is a risk for the UK but is one which increasing numbers of Britons seem willing to take. However, the UK leaving would also be a risk for the EU. If Britain did badly after leaving it would have a minor but possibly noticeable effect on European economies (especially exporting ones such as Germany’s). It would, however, confirm to them the wisdom of the EU project and if a humiliated UK ever wanted back in they could demand their pound of flesh (actually half kilo of flesh) several times over. More dangerous, however, would be if the UK became more prosperous than she currently is. That would imply that getting rid of the EU’s rules and having control of her own affairs was a significant advantage. That would create an even more dangerous potential domino effect in Europe with other countries demanding exit.

The only options which would be favourable to the maintenance of the status quo in Europe: the UK staying and accepting the current arrangements or leaving and being economically humiliated are precisely the ones which would be unacceptable or unfavourable to the UK either politically or economically. Conversely those favourable to the UK would be bad for the current “European Project.”

It seems that De Gaulle was maybe prescient all those years ago when he vetoed British membership to the EU. He said France would back commercial exchanges with Britain – “be it called association or by any other name” - but that was all. Letting the UK into the club all those years ago might yet be proved to have sown the seeds of the project’s demise.

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  • Mc Slaggart

    London Banks Opposing Britain Exit From EU1

    I fully support the UK standing up for the mile and getting out of the EU. That way the UK can have its own laws and go its own way.
    1
    http://www.bloomsberg.com/news/2014-04-08/london-banks-opposing-britain-exit-from-eu-see-u-k-loss.html

  • megatron

    Who knows what will happen but I think this analysis is a bit over simplistic and more importantly overstate Britains importance

    I am sure a similar article could have been written about Britain staying out of the Euro and whatever about its difficulties Britain staying out didnt really impact it.

  • Turgon

    megatron,
    You misunderstand. I do not rate Britain’s importance one way or another. The central point I am making is that if one country is allowed to modify the rules to their favour over a central issue of the EU (like freedom of movement) and that modification helps them, it is likely that other countries will make similar demands. That could very easily cause an unravelling of the “ever closer union”. It is not the UK’s importance that is relevant it is that one country being allowed to do something like that would set a precedent which is unlikely to be acceptable to the Brussels bureaucracy or pro ever closer union governments.

    Equally if the UK did leave it is not their great importance that matters. If they left and did markedly better than the rest of Europe that would also undermine the whole project.

    The UK and the possible renegotiation / exit is relevant not centrally because of the UK’s size or importance but because of the precedent which such an action if it were successful would create: favourable renegotiation or exit with subsequent greater prosperity. Clearly unfavourable renegotiation or post exit penury would create no precedents likely to be attractive to others.

  • Charles_Gould

    Turgon makes a good point. I can’t see David Cameron being very successful and his own renegotiations are likely to be small – the things he has publicly demanded fall well short of a restriction of “free movement” actually.

    That said this is perhaps academic: I believe that it most unlikely there will be a majority – Conservative government, which is the only scenario (at present) where a renegotiation and referendum is going to happen. (There has not been a majority-Tory government elected since 1992, and even that was quite close).

  • Charles_Gould

    Moreover the SDLP – unlike SF – will be there at Westminster to make the hurdle the Tories must jump that bit higher. In constituencies where SDLP and SF compete, a vote for SF (rather than the SDLP) is in effect a vote that makes it more likely that the Conservatives are in Downing Street.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Crunch time comes when rUK/Scotland and Ireland are asked to join a Fiscal Union; and asked they will be. This will be a total transference of sovereignty. There will be no dodging or fudging it. And my own subjective opinion for what it is worth is that they will not have the stomach for it. Some sort of federation is now being discussed behind hands and in various holes and corners: even; shock horror; in the republic.

  • Charles_Gould

    Terence

    The UK will of course not join a Fiscal Union – that would make sense for the Eurozone countries but not for those outside the Eurozone.

  • megatron

    Turgon,

    OK but explain why opting out of the Euro and having different rules for UK then was so different.

    If Britain leaves the EU it would be more like Robbie Williams leaving take that than John Lennon leaving the Beatles.

  • MYtwocents

    A hodgepodge of Tory Ukip and Dup/Uu could make up the numbers after the next election. one feels the next election will be the sceptics last chance, after that the influx of other European peoples will make it less likely.

  • Turgon

    megatron,
    Because the example you cite was the decision not to enter the Euro but remain outside. It was a decision not to join. A negative decision rather than positive leaving decision. (Clearly we left the ERM but that was a very different and less binding concept and was forced on us by the run on a sterling which had joined at a totally inappropriate level). The difference now is that these would be decisions to leave / renegotiate parts of the current arrangements which previously the UK had accepted.

    That change (a positive reversal of “ever closer union”) would to my mind be a more important and more difficult thing to get EU support for than the negative of not joining something.

    I can think of no occasion thus far when a country permanently and unilaterally, yet with the agreement of the others, left an important European Union structure / agreement which it had previously signed up to. I do not think sterling leaving the ERM counts as it was an events rather than a policy driven occurrence.

    The EU has heretofore had a ratchet effect whereby once an agreement was joined it could not be reversed. Allowing the UK to leave a significant structure / agreement yet stay in the EU would destroy the ratchet and would set a precedent which would be the anthesis of “ever closer union.”

  • megatron

    “That change (a positive reversal of “ever closer union”) would to my mind be a more important and more difficult thing to get EU support for than the negative of not joining something.”

    Fair enough – I disagree though. Obviously every action has a reaction somewhere but I think an action by Britain to either leave or opt out of some rules will not throw off course the huge number of ruling elites in Europe who want ever closer Union.

    For what its worth, I don’t support ever closer Union and think Britain should leave for a while to try the grass in the field across the road. I am an Irish republican though so Britain shouldn’t take my advice.

  • Charles_Gould

    Many speculate that if the UK were to leave the EU then the EU would return to the Franco-Germanic centric project that it always was. It would be more harmonious: two’s company, three’s a crowd.

  • terence patrick hewett

    @Charles_Gould

    Hi Charles, I found this piece on the ClickonWales website:

    The Reformed Union: A British Federation

    By David Melding, Conservative AM for South Wales Central and Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly

    http://www.clickonwales.org/2012/02/the-reformed-union-a-british-federation/

    Not being of the Tory persuasion, I approached this paper with some suspicion, but I none the less found this a perceptive summary of the constitutional history of the 4 nations and a persuasive argument for federation. If Britain withdraws from the EU or not he makes the case that pressure for constitutional reform will become intense.

  • Kensei

    More dangerous, however, would be if the UK became more prosperous than she currently is. That would imply that getting rid of the EU’s rules and having control of her own affairs was a significant advantage. That would create an even more dangerous potential domino effect in Europe with other countries demanding exit.

    That may be the perception, but at the heart of it is a fallacy of aggregation. A single country might be able to leave the EU, undercut the member countries on taxes and regulation or whatever, and essentially conduct a mercantlist-style policy to enrich themselves. The entirety of Europe, or even large sections of it, cannot do the same because they you get a race to the bottom, and economics is unusully clear that trade barriers (to goods, service or labour) are harmful to all the economies involved. The “unravelling” scenario does not necessarily stop at the point at which other countries exit the EU.

    There is of course, a third option you are overlooking – the UK exits, but needs to comply with the vast majority of EU legislation to remain a trading partner and just sort of muddles by as it is without any major improvement or decline, but loses it’s seat at the table. Cameron leaving the Centre Right grouping in Europe is a cautionary tale, since he would have had far more influence against Juncker at an earlier stage if he was in the tent.

    Anyone here from either side of the divide should also be worried about the consequences here. The Republic in ever closer Union with the UK out is recipe for renewed instability even assuming it doesn’t lead to another round of violence.

  • Roy Walsh

    The median position on Europe within the United Kingdom is probably supportive of remaining within the EU if significant reforms can be delivered. Those reforms are, however, ones which are likely to be very difficult for many in Europe to stomach – probably most totemic being universal freedom of movement. Preventing uncontrolled mass migration from within the EU seems to be a red line to very many in the UK especially in the East of England / East Midlands which have been most affected by widespread inwards migration……
    Indeed Turtgon, were Britain to either leave the EU or, renegotiate membership, withdrawing from Art. 45 of the Treaty, what are they, and we here in the disputed terrority to do with the eastern European already here?
    Where are we going to find the staff willing to work in Moy Park or other producers and where would displaced workers from these EU states go? The Free State is filled to capacity with EU immigrants, so taking in more would increase resentment.
    I’m all for kicking the Europeans but any policy on leaving or reducing Co operation needs to be clearly negotiated so we’re not left with bigger problems nationwide.
    Excellent posting by the way.

  • Greenflag

    ‘ More dangerous, however, would be if the UK became more prosperous (outside the EU ) than she currently is. ‘

    Given the current world economy and the trend to ever greater inequality with the UK performing worse in that regard than say Germany , France or even Italy never mind the Scandinavian countries the only way for the UK to become more ‘prosperous ‘ outside the EU would be for it to become an even lower wage /lower taxed economy thus increasing income and wealth inequality in British society even more so than at present .

    I’m sure Mr Cameron’s Tories and their financial sector allies would’nt be troubled by such an outcome however the vast majority of British people might ‘take ‘offence .

    Not that staying in the EU is the solution to the rising social and economic problems facing the UK or any other country within the EU. Those problems will only be resolved at a higher level than Westminster /Dail/Strasbourg/Brussels but it does’nt seem like our politicians have any will or capacity to even start on a resolution of those issues .

    De Gaulle btw was a sell out . Imagine believing Algeria was not a part of France ;)

  • Comrade Stalin

    kensei,

    You made the point I was about to make much better than I would have. Threats from the UK do not scare other European countries, if anything they appear to have encouraged European leaders to close ranks. Cameron has made himself look like a complete fool.

    The grass always looks greener on the other side, and I can see why the attraction of restricting immigration and reducing regulation is attractive to some people (even though I don’t agree with them). But there is no way that the UK would simply be allowed to continue trading with Europe, business as usual, following an exit. It needs Europe more than Europe needs it and it has no leverage on its own in any of the trade treaties that would have to be negotiated, not only with Europe but other countries in the world.

    I know in my own workplace that the ability to do unrestricted business with Ireland and continental Europe is extremely valuable. I had to investigate sending some goods for repair to Switzerland recently and it was a major headache involving customs paperwork. Being able to courier something directly to another European country so that it arrives on the guy’s desk within 48 hours is critical in a fast-moving world where time to market is everything.

  • Roy Walsh

    Comrade, the ability to send snail mail to an EU state could be as effectively achieved through membership of EEA which is a possibility should the potential referendum in 2017.
    The history of European immigrants must be recalled though by the British before they come to any decision to withdraw. Their economy, and during the Celtic Tiger boom, here too, would have been impossible without, largely, Polish worker’s whose work ethic is immense. If the Brit’s left they might well prosper, being untied by euro regulation and better able to trace, without restriction, with the BBC nations but, where will they find the staff to do the ‘shit work’ like care homes, factories packing etc?
    This I expect will be the main argument in favour of ‘renegoiation’ rather than removing!

  • dodrade

    Greenland seems to have done ok after leaving in 1985.