Queen Elizabeth II, the UK monarch, understands better than her country’s politicians what the EU is all about. She underlined during her recent state visit to Germany that a new division of Europe – owing to a possible Brexit – would be a major setback. The British people should be proud to be British but accept gladly to be Europeans: “Keeping Europe together should be our endeavour!”
The German government and a large majority of German citizens share her view. We Germans know that the UK stands for values we share: open markets and fair competition, rule of law and individual responsibility, little ‘red tape’, only as much government as absolutely necessary and a society that offers equal chances to everybody. We are afraid that with Brexit we would be left alone with other big European countries believing in strong central government and less individual responsibility.
There are many challenges the EU has to meet, if it wants to keep the promises it has made to its citizens: peace, growth, jobs, stability, solidarity, human rights and a life in dignity, less bureaucracy, the rule of law etc. But it does not deliver in many of these areas right now.
Knocking at an open door
The EU does need an overhaul and David Cameron is right to ask for it. Most government heads would agree that the current state of the EU is unsustainable.
Cameron has, however, not yet spelled out in detail what the objectives of his re-negotiation will be. To me it looks as if Cameron wants to achieve the following (in addition to securing a special role for the City of London):
- Lower British contributions to the EU budget
- Stopping the deepening of integration, possibly changing the wording of the Treaty of Lisbon
- Regaining/keeping national competence over immigration, asylum and refugees.
- Keeping national competence over security and defence policy
- Curtailing the free movement of EU citizens
The UK already enjoys a financial rebate negotiated by former PM Margaret Thatcher which other EU member states have accepted unwillingly. It is very unlikely Cameron will succeed in getting fresh concessions.
He says that Britain cannot accept any longer the Treaty of Lisbon wording, that the EU is “working for an ever closer union”. He claims that an ever closer integration of the member states violates UK sovereignity. But the Treaty speaks of an ever closer union of the people , not the states of Europe. Does Cameron really want to alienate European citizens?
Sovereignty or solidarity?
The situation of the refugees coming across the Mediterranian is appalling. This is a severe test of whether the EU is serious about human rights and solidarity. However, Cameron is preventing the EU from getting its act together and showing that solidarity.
Cameron deplores the situation in the Ukraine, but refuses to let the EU develop a strong and cohesive European security and defence policy. If Europe wants to contribute to peace-making or -keeping in the world, it will have to work more closely together. Otherwise its influence will vanish quickly. Cameron has the chance to strengthen Europe’s role in this field – if only because the UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council – or weaken it without really gaining any stronger British say.
The free movement of EU citizens anywhere inside the Union is one of the single market’s four freedoms. Calling this into question will be unacceptable to other member states. A more just question is whether EU citizens, once they have moved to another EU country, should instantaneously have access to the social benefits of that country -including for some family members left back home. It is in the interest of most member states to find a lasting solution to the problem of “economic/ social migration” within the EU. Cameron might well succeed in initiating changes in the current set-up.
Europe is more than a FTA
Overall, the chances of PM Cameron achieving a fundamental change in the UK´s relationship with the EU are, however, slim. The EU has become much more than the free trade area the UK joined in 1973. The UK has signed up to this irreversible change.
Most EU member states want the UK to stay in the EU and are willing to accept some changes. They may even welcome them. But the spirit of the European project as a political, not just trade and commerce, project has to be respected. If UK citizens are unwilling to accept that, the UK will have to leave, very much to the regret of its partners – and probably of the UK itself a few years hence.