David Cameron

Europe's Outsider

cammerkel
Awkward pause: Angela Merkel and David Cameron's relationship has become increasingly distant.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Britain will hold a referendum on E.U. membership by the end of 2017.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Britain’s economy is the second-largest in the European Union.
    • David Cameron hopes to win major E.U. reforms on issues such as welfare tourism before the referendum.
    • He has been bolstered by a surprise victory in this month’s British elections.
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    Audio

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David Cameron is a unique figure in the European Union. No other politician feels such deep delight at playing the role of the outsider, despite being pro membership.

In 2009, the British prime minister made his Conservative Party withdraw from the center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament and establish a euro-skeptical group.

In 2013, he shocked the rest of the European Union by announcing his intention to hold a referendum on the issue of Britain’s membership.

And at the E.U. summit in June 2014, Mr. Cameron insisted on a vote to confirm the appointment of the head of the European Commission so that he could officially deny Jean-Claude Juncker the vote of Britain, the bloc’s second-largest economy. Until then, heads of government were scrupulously concerned with ensuring unanimity when it came to selecting the commission’s top post.

Whoever thrusts his foot so often in front of his partners cannot expect any gestures of tenderness in the political arena.

Mr. Cameron certainly doesn’t have many friends left in Europe. The only ally standing beside him is Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán — a highly controversial figure. Even Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is ideologically close to Mr. Cameron with regard to political issues and economic policy, has taken up a demonstrative distance to the Briton on several occasions recently.

If Mr. Cameron believes that he can now turn the European Union upside-down with his demands, he is making a big mistake.

Mr. Cameron’s surprisingly clear victory in national elections this month has filled him and his party with elation. For the rest of the European Union, the idea of enduring another four years with this prime minister is a sobering prospect.

If Mr. Cameron believes that he can now turn the European Union upside-down with his demands for reform and referendum, then he is making a big mistake. He is faced with a united opposition: The other E.U. heads of government will certainly not heap new privileges and exceptional dispensations on Britain. In particular, they will not do Mr. Cameron the favor of altering the primary law of the union, namely the Treaty of Lisbon.

The fear is that such a concession would open a Pandora’s box. From all sides, strengthened E.U. skeptics would call for an end to European integration and re-nationalization. But heads of government will not take this risk. If necessary, they would prefer to pay the price of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

So Mr. Cameron cannot use blackmail. But his European partners may be willing to give ground on secondary E.U. laws — especially because other countries are also interested in these. Welfare tourism, which sees economic migrants from within the E.U. target its wealthier countries because of their generous welfare systems, is at the top of Mr. Cameron’s agenda.

Reform here wouldn’t have to be a problem. The fact is that national governments already have the legal powers to stop the abuse of social services by foreigners. This was even confirmed in November by the European Court of Justice.

But national courts and social-service agencies are uncertain how to handle jobless immigrants from the poorhouses of the European Union — not only in Britain, but also in Germany. Thus a clarification with regard to E.U. law could be helpful, and Mr. Cameron can be expected to get that ruling.

And the prime minister can score a further point. The relationship between Britain, which does not use the euro currency, and the 19 members of the euro zone must be clearly defined in terms of E.U. law.

So the European Union could assure the British that the European banking union, which aims to establish a single banking system across the bloc, will have no deleterious side effects on the hugely important financial hub in the city of London.

The stakes are even higher for Mr. Cameron. Leaving the union would make Britain poorer in every sense.

Moreover, Mr. Cameron could see to it that the bloc picks up speed in completing the opening of its domestic market. The issue here also involves vested rights cherished by Germans.

The fact that the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, has recently begun directing its power against fee schedules and admission restrictions for independent professions has been at the instigation of Britain. The authorities in Brussels are explicitly concerned with accommodating the government in London.

The big game of poker with Britain will start at the European summit on June 25. Much is at issue for the Union. A British departure would permanently weaken the community of nations and would significantly disturb its inner balance.

But the stakes are even higher for Mr. Cameron. Leaving the union would make Britain poorer in every sense. American investment banks and industrial companies have already threatened to respond to that scenario by abandoning the country. Moreover, it would probably no longer be possible to keep the Europe-friendly Scots from leaving the United Kingdom.

If Mr. Cameron were to let things come to this, then in the end he would be the biggest loser.

 

To contact the author: berschens@handelsblatt.com

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