The UK and the EU: membership without belonging?
The UK’s doomed campaign to prevent the appointment of M. Juncker has a historical context and an understandable immediate motive - which does not make it reasonable.
Heads of government do not attain or retain their positions by picking fights they are sure to lose, so David Cameron’s futile battle to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as President of the European Commission needs explaining. To end up with only one out of twenty-seven potential allies is not a setback but a crushing defeat, even if Mr Cameron tends to project his very failure as the proof of a need for reform in the EU.
His doomed campaign has two sources: it fits into a long British suspicion of European-level democracy, and it was triggered by immediate political pressures, admittedly not easy to manage.
The UK began accession negotiations to the EEC only in 1961, finally entering (after twice being rejected) in 1973. Consistently in a way, the UK has always seen the EU as an economic entity, in particular a free trade area, rather than as a political project, resisting any trend that would deepen political union. As a Conservative MP said in January 2014, ‘If the EU can't be the most competitive bloc in the world then what is it there for?
Luuk Van Middelaar has quoted Mrs Thatcher’s report to the House of Commons in 1990, following an EU Summit: ‘Mr Delors wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No! No! No!’. (Hansard, 30 October 1990.) Although she was soon forced out of office her heritage remains: a radical hostility to the development of shared sovereignty.
In 1985 the UK opted out of the Schengen Agreement. At Maastricht (1992) it rejected future membership of the Eurozone, and also the ‘social chapter’ on employment practices: and later, that part of the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) that requires the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU into British Law, again because of the Charter’s provisions on labour law.
In 2012, the UK declined to share in the Eurozone ‘rescue plan’. ‘What is on offer isn't in Britain's interests so I didn't agree to it’, said Mr Cameron briskly, consigning the notion of solidarity to irrelevance. In the 2013 negotiations on the 2014-20 Financial Framework, he deliberately evoked Mrs Thatcher’s confrontational style as he claimed to have ‘fought off’ an attack on the ‘British rebate’.
It is not surprising then, that he opposed the leadership of M. Juncker, a pro-integration appointee from the EPP from which he had withdrawn the Conservative Party, even if he inevitably loses the very friends in Brussels on whom he must rely to accomplish ‘reforms’.
The immediate trigger is the imminence of the UK General Election in May 2015 and the new threat posed by the UK Independence Party (UKIP). In full election mode. Mr Cameron’s recent cabinet reshuffle sought to demonstrate ‘strength’ over against the EU, while provoking the Liberal Democrat coalition partners he still needs in order to govern.
Attempting to explain a policy is not defending it. I believe the Government’s attitude to be at once illogical, inspired overwhelmingly by narrow self-interest, and self-defeating.
Relentless government criticisms of the EU feed on popular ignorance of the EU’s actual workings in order to foment dissatisfaction. Mr Cameron calls for ‘reforms’ that are embodied in the Treaty of Lisbon itself. The Treaty stresses subsidiarity as a core EU principle: the EU may only act in areas that are not better tackled at the national level. Those areas where EU law has exclusive competence are by definition cross-border – such as the customs union and the management of the competition rules of the internal market. Any EU law that binds the UK has already been agreed to - though not, of course, necessarily desired - under rules accepted by the UK.
Second, UKIP’s bid for ‘independence’ is a chimera, founded on a double absurdity. Are Germany and France and Sweden not ‘independent’? How does UKIP envisage Britain’s ‘independence’ vis-à-vis international capital markets, or the WTO, or climate change, or China? This conception of independence is currently expressed in juvenile gestures such as when MEPs stand in the European Parliament to turn their backs on speakers.
Mr Cameron’s attempt to compete with UKIP for the anti-European vote, driven by an election imperative, demeans the UK itself. Far better to accept the risks and the benefits of critical yet supportive engagement.
Frank Turner SJ