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Schadenfreude – Putting the record straight on UK membership of the EU

The UK’s relationship with Europe should be seen in its historical context, writes our secret columnist in Brussels – Schadenfreude

According to most of the polls the majority of British electorate consider that Britain should leave the European Union asap.  This view appears to be coloured by the net  cost of belonging, by the influx of immigrants from other EU members and  their access to social benefits including housing, as well as to employment and by EU legislation which by-passes the British Parliament , some of it considered to be damaging to British interests.

It is also asserted that Britain would be better off if its exporters shifted their focus away from the EU and towards the emerging markets. Alone, Britain could conclude its own trade deals with world markets.

On 23 January 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron, who has said that he is a Eurosceptic, delivered a keynote speech known after the forum in which he made it – his ‘Bloomberg’ speech.  He listed what is wrong, said what he wants is a “new settlement” in a more “flexible” EU, observed that there is proof  that “some powers can be returned to Member States” and suggested that there is a general desire for change. He was not suggesting that the objective was simply more UK opt-outs.

Prominent members of his Conservative Party have repeatedly maintained that EU members should not have to do all the same things or go to the same end-point. The UK has already exempted itself from adopting the euro,  and from paying the full amount of its budgetary contribution. It did not join the Schengen Agreement on the abolition of frontier checks on travellers, and it excluded the European Court of Justice from any finding that its laws are inconsistent with the  Charter of Fundamental Rights.

It is currently disengaging from a selection of measures adopted under the Freedom Security and Justice chapter.

Regardless of whatever are the prospects for a “new settlement” it is a safe bet that the United Kingdom will continue to do all it can to block, moderate or shun anything that smacks of “More Europe” – especially in the areas of public finance and regulation of financial markets. These areas are vulnerable partly because of any closer integration of the eurozone.

It is instructive to see how Britain got to where it is vis-à-vis “Europe”. When on 19 September 1946 Winston Churchill said in his oft-quoted speech at the University of Europe:”We must build a kind of United States of Europe…” his Europe was the landmass, excluding the offshore island. This is abundantly clear from the conclusion:

“Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, the mighty America – and I trust Soviet Russia – for then indeed all would be well – must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe…”

His successor, Harold Macmillan, struck a different note :

“It is true of course that political unity is the central aim of these European countries and we would naturally accept that ultimate goal”. (Pamphlet     “Britain, the Commonwealth and Europe” 1962)

Today that would be heresy.

By 1971 the British Conservative Party majority was pro-European Economic Community. Prime Minister Edward Heath averred in the House of Commons on 28 October: “In joining we are making a commitment which involves our sovereignty  but we are also gaining an opportunity….to influence  [Community] decisions in the future”.

Few contemporary Conservative party members would regard this as a gain.

The message changed. In her famous speech at the College of Europe in Bruges on 20 September 1988, 17 years on and after 15 years of EEC membership, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made two declarations. The first in the spirit of Macmillan-Heath,  is rarely recalled: “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”.

But only on her terms: “…willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community”.

Therefore (famously): “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Which, 25 years on, is the leitmotiv of Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Bloomberg” speech in January 2013, calling for a new settlement for Britain and  apparently for change all round.

The key would be flexibility, on which he commented:

“The European Treaty commits the Member States ‘to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. This has been consistently interpreted as applying not to the peoples but rather to the states and institutions compounded by a European Court of Justice that has consistently supported greater centralisation. We understand and respect the right of others to maintain their commitment to this goal. But for Britain – and perhaps for others – it is not the objective. And we would be much more comfortable if the Treaty specifically said so freeing those who want to go faster, to do so, without being held back by the others.”

He was not asking for freedom for the fast trackers (they already have it) but exemption for Britain from joining with them as they do what the Treaty says they should do (“…. ever closer union”). What Mr Cameron was talking about is well  known as ”Europe à la carte or Europe Pick and Choose.

Ironically the Lisbon Treaty already provides for a group of Member States to “go faster in “enhanced co-operation” (Art 326 et seq). They do so on their own initiative, subject to a proposal by the Commission, a decision by the Council and the consent of the European Parliament. Treaty articles enable the Member states concerned to go beyond the present co-operation, not to subtract from it (though in practice this provision has had little use).

Until Mr Cameron’s wish-list comes out it is impossible to know whether the other Member States will want to back it, oppose it or “pick and choose” it. It will come down to a political calculus – how many “competences” will they agree to “rebalance” (these are the current euphemisms) in order to keep Britain in, that is operationally to enable a British Government to recommend a ”Yes” vote in its In/Out referendum.

Agreed changes would require Treaty amendment, which is subject to parliamentary approval and  in Ireland and possibly in France to a popular referendum. The voters in the booths might have matters on their minds that are totally unconnected with the question on the voting paper.

A deal is always possible. A focus on treaty amendment might gravitationally attract extraneous questions concerning reform of the eurozone.

Another divisive debate is headed our way, with Britain on the sidelines, determined as ever to prevent “Europe” from interfering with its financial markets or fiscal policies.

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