Senior politicians across Europe were yesterday adjusting to a European Union in which the United Kingdom’s membership could be in question for at least the next five years.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, gambled his political future on a call to his European partners to allow him to re-write the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, who in 2005 successfully campaigned for a ‘No’ vote on the EU’s constitutional treaty, said that Cameron’s promise of a referendum on continued membership in the Union was “dangerous for Britain”.
Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, said that she was “prepared” to talk about Britain’s wishes, but added: “We have always to keep in mind that other countries have different wishes and we have to find a fair compromise.”
Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, from the junior partner in the coalition, said: “We need more, not less integration.” He dismissed the idea that the UK might be liberated from adhering to certain EU rules. “Cherry-picking is not an option,” Westerwelle said.
Mario Monti, Italy’s caretaker prime minister, said that he welcomed the idea of an in-out referendum because it would create clarity. “The EU does not need unwilling Europeans. We desperately need willing Europeans,” he said.
Among those making more supportive noises, Alex Stubb, Finland’s Europe minister, said that Cameron’s speech “clarifies things” and that it was “more constructive than expected”. He said that the UK was Finland’s “natural ally” on policies to do with the single market and free trade.
Petr Necas, the Czech prime minister, said that he shared Cameron’s view that the EU should be “more flexible and more open”.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, praised Cameron’s good reform ideas. Speaking in London yesterday (23 January), Cameron promised an “in-out” referendum on Britain’s membership in the first half of the next British parliament, ie, between 2015 and 2017. (For further details, see pages 2 and 3.) In doing so, he opened up the possibility of the UK becoming the first member state ever to leave the Union.
He built his scenario on an expectation that the EU would embark on some form of reform through treaty change, requiring unanimity among member states, after the 2014 elections to the European Parliament.
Cameron said that he would argue in those treaty negotiations for a major repatriation of powers, notably in social and labour legislation.
In his speech, Cameron argued that there is no single European “demos”, or people from which political legitimacy could flow. “It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU,” he said.
José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, welcomed Cameron’s speech as “an important contribution to the democratic debate on Europe in the United Kingdom”, according to a spokeswoman. “It is for the British government and the British people to set out what they feel is the best approach to the UK’s place within the European Union.”
Cameron yesterday challenged Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, on the question of a referendum. Miliband’s response was unequivocal: “We do not want an in-out referendum.”
In the European Parliament, the reception for Cameron’s speech was overwhelmingly negative. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, characterised Cameron’s speech as “inward-looking” and predicted that it “will not impress many of the UK’s European partners”.
Joseph Daul, the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party group, said that Cameron’s speech marked a “retreat” from common values and a shared future.
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Alexander Lambsdorff, a German Liberal MEP, said that it was “unrealistic” to achieve treaty change of such magnitude by 2017. What Cameron wants “is not minor fiddling but massive treaty change, and the last time we did that it took years”, he said. “To propose an in-out [referendum] years down the road, when the rest of Europe is not keen to grant the Tories this, just does not make sense.”
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, said Cameron should have called an immediate referendum.
Martin Callanan, the leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament, said that Cameron could not offer an in-out referendum before the next general election, scheduled for 2015. “We are in coalition with a bunch of Europhiles,” he said in a reference to the Liberal Democrats. “That is the political reality and we have to take that into account. We simply do not have the parliamentary majority at present to do this on our own.”