In the short term there are two problems of strategic importance with regard to the European Union itself. In the case of Britain, they are intertwined.
After tying the knot with ultra-conservative homophobes and other Europhobes, David Cameron and William Hague have continued their quest to cut a United Kingdom under a Conservative government even further adrift from Europe.
The latest demonstration is their
B I L L
TO Make provision for a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon signed at Lisbon on 13 December 2007 for the suspension of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 until the result of that referendum; and for its repeal if the Treaty is not approved in the referendum.
The reader is reminded of the fact that the United Kingdom has already completed formal ratification of the EU Treaty of Lisbon, after approval by both Houses of Parliament.
The Lisbon Treaty has been approved by the parliaments in 26 out of 27 member states. Ireland has announced a referendum on the “better deal”.
If the next general election brings in a Conservative government, the suspension and rejection of approval would either
a) frustrate the treaty reform process of the EU member states since 2000, leaving the European Union with the unsatisfactory Treaty of Nice (minus further UK repatriation of common policies), in case the Lisbon Treaty has not entered into force; or
b) lay the foundations for substantial renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe, if the Lisbon Treaty is already in force.
The problem with the Conservatives’ attitude is that they seemingly want to eat the cake and have it too.
The straightforward policy would be to make a decision for or against withdrawal, with or without a referendum (in the country of “parliamentary sovereignty”).
If the United Kingdom wants to secede from the European Union, nobody will stop them. It would require detailed negotiations to deconstruct the manifold relationships, and to erect new structures, but it’s up to the British to start the negotiations.
However, it looks as if the Tories want even less responsibilities and show no team spirit, but wish to stay on the inside, in order to block progress between the EU member states.
Under the Nice Treaty their goals would be more limited, but if the Lisbon Treaty is in force, it is the foundation of the European Union, which means that a rejection would be tantamount to secession.
Cameron has announced that the following (long term) budget negotiations will give the United Kingdom needed leverage to ram through its demands. Veto power is generally the weapon of the rejectionists and obstructionists.
The political, media and popular discourse on Europe is such that secession would be a natural solution for Britain. The European Union would count its losses and go on with life, and the UK would search for its own role in world affairs and commercial relations.
What to do with Britain?
The insular British discussion tends to forget that their moods and actions have consequences for others.
The ability to take an outside view seems to be an even more scarce commodity in contemporary Britain than a tolerably accurate picture of what the EU is and isn’t.
The twofold strategy of the Conservatives will make Britain one of the main strategic short term headaches for the European Union (the other one is the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty).
In about a year’s time, the new Conservative government is going to demand a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe, smaller changes under the Nice Treaty or larger under the Lisbon Treaty.
(The Lisbon Treaty would either have crashed, or the UK would repudiate major parts of it.)
It is easy to imagine the annoyance felt by European leaders in both cases.
Their timid and consensual treaty reforms would come to nought, or at least provide the UK with even greater exceptions from common rules, while being able to halt progress almost at will.
Cameron has already promised to hold the next long term budget hostage to his demands (naturally shrinking the relative size of the EU budget and keeping the UK rebate at the same time).
With regard to the Lisbon Treaty, the political leaders can mainly watch things unfold in the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland and Poland, so they are more or less reduced to passive bystanders.
But renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s membership terms requires treaty amendments. Here the national leaders have a real choice. This is actually one of the few instances, when veto powers favour a constructive policy.
Britain may feel that it has a problem with Europe, but Britain can cause a disproportionate amount of harm to Europe as a whole.
It is already clear, where a road paved with concessions would lead the EU’s member states and the European Union. Paralysis, palsy, impotence, immobility and erosion of team spirit offer a hint.
When approached, the member states should politely tell David Cameron and William Hague where to find the door. If the other EU leaders are quick about it, they might be able to agree on the next long term budget in a less poisoned atmosphere than promised by Cameron.