The United Kingdom is famously Eurosceptic. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once banged the table at a European summit asking to have “…our own money back” which resulted in a special membership rebate to pacify Britain. The British are the only ones in the EU who think membership is worse rather than good for their country. Current Prime Minister David Cameron’s own Conservative party has such a substantially large faction of highly EU-critical members that they chose to form their own faction in European Parliament because they found other European conservatives weren’t eurosceptic enough.
Recently, the Prime Minister held a highly anticipated speech on Britain’s future in the European Union, discussing how to change Britain’s relationship with the EU. With the speech, he promised to ask the British people whether the country should choose once and for all to stay in the EU or permanently leave it. This in-out referendum, if Cameron were to be reelected as Prime Minister, would be held some time in 2017 during the next parliament. It would effectively override the referendum held four decades earlier in 1975 in which 67% of the population voted in favor of joining the European Economic Community, the organization which became the European Union in the 1990s. Yet despite promising to hold a referendum which could end with a result endorsing a British exit, Cameron still insists that the UK’s place is within the EU and that he would actively campaign in favor of a vote to remain member.
Whether or not the United Kingdom would vote to remain or leave is hard to decipher as the referendum is years away, with polls likely to shift substantially as the public debate about EU membership heats up. Young people are more enthusiastic, while the elderly are more skeptical.
Immediately judging the speech as a great victory, the United Kingdom Independence Party’s leader Nigel Farage boasted success for his party’s platform and general influence in the British debate on European Union-relations, saying that only the UKIP will truly campaign against the pro-EU establishment. Earlier this year Cameron and Farage had a public spat with each other.
President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs meetings among all the heads of states and governments within the Union, said that for member states to be able to pick and choose the terms of their participation in the EU would unravel the project, as working together requires giving and taking “…the sum of which is positive”. He added that “Reopening treaty negotiations is not possible”.
Changing Britain’s membership would require starting a highly complex procedure. The European Union is created from two international treaties that shape it. In order to renegotiate membership terms for Britain, an intergovernmental convention would have to be convened where all states propose additions and edits to the current founding documents. This would then be followed by a long drawn-out process of requiring ratification among all 27 member states – an undertaking that could last for over a year. If even a single state were to vote no, then the whole process could crumble. This is what happened with the European Constitution in 2005, but was deviously sidestepped with the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
Among the powers Cameron wishes to be repatriated from Brussels is enforcement and policing measures through opting out of roughly 135 crime and policing laws, including the European Arrest Warrant which permits EU member states to request transfers of criminal suspects to one another. The Lisbon Treaty put an increased emphasis on pan-European integration over mere cooperation in criminal justice matters, making Cameron fear that EU law could undermine Britain’s common law. However, Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is highly critical, claiming Britain’s own police force is opposed to less integration and that Cameron’s plans would enable criminals and pedophiles to evade custody. As millions of Britons travel across borders every year, including one million living abroad, she argued that participating in justice cooperation is a necessity for the UK citizens themselves.
Another policy area sought to be repatriated is the principle of free movement, which along with goods, labour and capital constitutes what generally are considered the four fundamental freedoms of the single European market. As member states’ migration quotas are scaled down in the upcoming year permitting their citizens to move freely across the Union, Cameron wants to make it harder for Europeans to come and live in Britain by suggesting that only working immigrants be allowed.
Most member states officials wish the UK to remain a member without splitting the Union through treaty renegotiation. The two heavyweights of European integration, Germany and France, have both responded with skepticism with Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle criticizing the notion of selectively choosing parts of membership, while France has adopted a more snide tone by stating they would offer up a red carpet for any British businesses who would seek to leave and risk being deprived access to the EU’s single market. The Obama administration has voiced its concerns over a looming British exit warning that Britain could lose a voice in free trade, defense and foreign policy. Nonetheless, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was open to a ‘fair compromise’.
With most of Europe coalescing ever closer, Cameron’s speech marked a path of where Britain, after a rocky forty year relationship with the European Union, wants to challenge increased integration by carving out a special and unique relationship for the country. Even if he succeeds repatriating powers and remain in the Union’s heart and soul, it could still come down to the opinion of the British people who might settle this issue once and for all a few years from now.