Leaders of other states reacted quickly to David Cameron’s announcement that if his party is re-elected to lead the House of Commons he would give his state’s residents a chance to vote yes or no on seceding from the European Union. Cameron said the referendum would also be contingent on him being able to renegotiate his state’s place in the Union. This renegotiation in particular prompted some particularly acute reactions from leaders of other “big states.” Behind these reactions was a sense that the British government was being too selfish.
David Cameron of Britain
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Britain should not be allowed to “cherry pick” from among the E.U. competencies only those that the state likes. What then should we make of the opt-outs at the time—provisions in which states other than Britain benefitted? Surely one size does not fit all in such a diverse federal union (that goes for the U.S. as well). Westerwelle was saying that Cameron had abused the practice that was meant as an exception rather than the rule. Behind the “cherry pick” term is the implication that Cameron, and the British government in general, was being too selfish concerning its role in the E.U.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, related the selfish approach of the British government to the detriment of the European Union. Specifically, he warned of “piecemeal legislation, disintegration and potentially the breakup of the union” if Britain was allowed to be bound only to the E.U. competencies that the party in power in the House of Commons likes. A player joining a baseball team would be very selfish in demanding that he will only bat because that’s the only part that is fun. There is no team, moreover, if no player is held to anything more than what he or she enjoys. In education, such selfishness manifests in students claiming that whatever they take should be interesting.
Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, also touched on the detriment to the whole from the selfishness of a part. He said that Cameron’s notion of a flexible arrangement for Britain would lead to there being “no Europe at all. Just a mess.” Paradoxically, the selfish person undercuts even his own interests. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that “Europe a la carte” would introduce dangerous risks for Britain itself. Of course, Cameron would likely refute this claim by pointing to his aim of retaining all the advantages of being a state in the E.U. without any of the disadvantages. So we are back to the selfishness.
Indeed, behind Cameron’s claim that a referendum in 2013 would not be “the right way forward” either for Britain or for the E.U. as a whole is his own political objective. He had been on record that Britain should not secede from the European Union. The chance of his preference being accepted by a majority of the voters in his state increases if the default “in” position is the outcome of the renegotiation because that outcome is presumably more in Britain’s interest than the earlier default in which the state was betwixt and between.
Cameron’s political assumption was that being on more solid ground, and letting the bailout sooth over the debt problems in the E.U., would make it easier for the electorate in his state to vote to stay in, under terms he will have negotiated. Were the interests of Britain and the E.U. really motivating the prime minister, he would have sought to relieve the uncertainty for both by going with a referendum sometime in the second quarter of 2013.
In short, the visceral reactions in other states to Cameron’s announcement manifest recognition of selfishness of one part at the expense of the whole. However, from the standpoint of the Euro-skeptics in Britain, the apparent selfishness is rather the alternative assumption that the E.U. is simply a series of multilateral treaties in which sovereign states pursue their respective interests. “What he wants, above all,” according to Deutsche Welle, “is a single market.” Therefore, he “wants to take powers back from Brussels” to return the E.U. to a network of sovereign states. Each state, being fundamentally sovereign, “should be able to negotiate its level of integration in the EU.” Such would be the case were the E.U. merely a bundle of multilateral international treaties, rather than a federal union of semi-sovereign states. Herein lies the real conflict of ideas within the E.U. Cameron’s strategy is selfish only from the assumption that the E.U. is something more than a network to which Britain happens to belong.
Ultimately the problem is the uneasy co-existence of the two contending conceptions of what the union is. The real question is whether the E.U. can long exist with both conceptions being represented by contending states. The negative reaction from leaders who hold the “modern federal” conception (i.e., dual sovereignty) suggests that ultimately Cameron’s conception of the E.U. is incompatible with the union’s continued viability. Put another way, the federal conception of dual sovereignty was in effect rejecting the earlier confederal (e.g., alliance) conception as fundamentally selfish. This condemnation would not make sense to the confederal crowd. The two conceptions are indeed quite far apart, which is ultimately why the European Union cannot remain viable housing them both.
“EU Leaders Hit Out Over Cameron Referendum Pledge,” Deutche Welle, 23 January 2013.
“Cameron Wants Another EU,” Deutsche Welle, 24 January 2013.