Tag Archives: United Kingdom

The Beginning of the End of the Road? Britain and the European Council meeting, 8/9 December 2011

The meeting of the Heads of State and Government in the European Council in Brussels on 8/9 December 2011 marks nothing short of a caesura in the UK’s almost thirty-nine years of membership of the European Union. There are five principal points to note from this:

1. Regardless of the content of the new intergovernmental treaty, the fact that the somewhere between 23 and 26 countries are likely to sign up for this, with potentially only the UK on the sidelines, represents a spectacular failure of British diplomacy. Hitherto, the UK’s underlying approach to European negotiations had always been predicated on the idea of being in the room when the decisions are taken, even if Britain did not always formally participate in the outcomes of these decisions. And when it did oppose proposals, the British government has generally managed to ensure that it is not the only country doing so. Of course, one could argue that this ‘having your cake and eating it‘ tactic could not continue indefinitely; nonetheless, it is David Cameron, not John Major or even Margaret Thatcher, who will go down in history as the first UK Prime Minister to have failed on this account.

2. In truth, there was little chance of Cameron ever agreeing to the proposed new treaty. For one thing, the City is not only a major contributor to the British economy, but also to the Conservative Party (see the FT’s telling blog on this issue) – given this, it would have been astonishing had he agreed to more regulation of financial services. Second, had he signed up to a treaty it would have meant, at best, a drawn out and tortuous parliamentary ratification process (with Eurosceptic backbenchers literally queuing up to demand repatriation of powers) or at worst a full-blown referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, with terminal consequences for the Conservative Lib Dem coalition. It’s a moot point whether this prompted a deliberate strategy by Cameron to deploy his veto – Charles Grant of the CER certainly seems to think so.

3. One might therefore even be tempted to show understanding for the Prime Minister’s decision – if only it had not come at such a terrible price for the UK. Although the UK has de facto been outside key EU policies (the Euro, Schengen, Justice and Home Affairs / immigration) for many years now, that exclusion has now been institutionalised. Moreover – and this is perhaps the central point of this posting – it is an illusion to suppose that Britain will still have a full say in matters concerning the Single Market. The new treaty will spell much closer coordination and integration for participating member-states and to expect that this will not have implications for the forming of common positions in other policy areas, such as CAP and the Single Market, is frankly rather naive. It is not, as the Prime Minister suggested in his post-summit press conference, a question of whether EU officials will or will not support the work of the new treaty: in the EU, most decisions are prepared informally in the corridors between plenary meetings. Yet if the UK from the outset is not in the corridor, it cannot be part of that decision-making process. The very real likelihood over time, therefore, is that the UK will increasingly be presented with a series of faits accomplis by the other member-states, which it will have to accept, or face being outvoted on.

4. The decision to wield Britain’s veto formally has also cost an enormous amount of political capital. Already, patience with Britain has been wearing thin, but it has now erupted into open anger. The situation was not helped by some very poor preparatory work by the British government – in particular, David Cameron made no real attempt to win allies for his position, preferring instead to ‘go to Brussels’ and fight it out, mano y mano, with the other leaders. The BBC has an interesting collation of responses to Britain from around the EU, but the palpable anger in the comments by the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, in her comments to German television gives the best impression of how isolated the UK now is.

The summit, therefore, has left Britain more on the margins of the European Union than at any previous time in its history. Its outcome moreover now poses questions of a fundamental nature about the UK’s future role and position in the EU, which, ultimately, may even lead to referendum on the UK’s membership itself. That may cheer the hearts of the Conservative Eurosceptic Right, but it is scarcely a credible position for a relatively small (and heavily indebted) trading nation on the northwestern fringes of Europe to take.

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Of cakes and their consumption – reflections on the UK’s position within the EU

Among the general maelstrom that is the crisis in the Eurozone, one of the most fascinating things to observe has been the United Kingdom’s ever more apparent marginalisation within the European Union. Put differently, the recent actions of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government have won it few friends within the EU.

On the one hand, the UK is issuing near-constant exhortations (or should that be demands?) for the Eurozone to put its house in order; after all, with half our trade going to the EU, there is little prospect of our ailing recovery gathering pace once more while the Eurozone remains locked in crisis. Yet at the same time, the Government has flatly refused to contribute to commit British taxpayers money to either the EFSF or the ESM. While this may be understandable from a domestic political perspective (after all what would the Daily Mail say?), it cuts little ice with other EU member-states, especially Germany, who are ultimately underwriting the massive bailout loans needed. Indeed, it’s rather akin to the UK ‘having its cake and eating it’. Is it therefore really surprising that President Sarkozy lost his temper with David Cameron at the EU crisis summit in October?

On the other hand, persistent rumblings about the desirability of a ‘repatriation’ of powers from Brussels, combined with the recent parliamentary vote on whether a referendum should be held on EU membership, which produced the biggest Tory rebellion for some twenty years, makes the claim that the UK remains at the heart of the EU look frankly risible.

Of course, the attempt to ‘have it both ways’ reflects a long-established in British European policy, which goes back to the Treaty of Rome – the UK does not want further integration, but neither does it want other countries to gain an advantage from integrating themselves. Thus, the UK countered the establishment of the EEC in 1957 with the formation of EFTA – until it realised that the latter was very much a second-rate organisation and it decided to defect to the former. The UK long argued in favour of unanimity as the method of voting in the Council of Ministers – because it would make it easier to block unwelcome proposals from other member states. And as many in the old western European EU member-states will testify, the UK was such a strong proponent of enlargement in 2004/7 precisely because it knew that the inevitable change in the dynamics of the EU associated with this would dilute moves towards further integration. As ever, the essential truth of this view is confirmed by none other than Sir Humphrey Appleby, who explains the UK’s support of enlargement in Yes Minister thus: “the more members it [the EEC] has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes”. When Jim Hacker chides Sir Humphrey for his cynicism, he responds, with characteristic nonchalance, “We call it diplomacy, Minister”.

But the indications are gathering that this well-trodden path of British diplomacy in Europe, together with the relentless pursuit of short-term interests, has had its day; indeed, it is now becoming counterproductive. Already in 1994, the German CDU/CSU published a proposal for a ‘two-speed’ European Union (the so-called Schäuble-Lamers paper), with a core of members pursuing greater integration and a looser periphery of other states. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the central idea of this paper was reflected in the CDU’s new proposals for deeper integration among the members of the Eurozone, which were agreed at its Leipzig party congress this week.

So Britain will already structurally be on the periphery; but more than that, there has been a distinct change in tone within the German political elite when it comes to the UK. Whereas in the past, German politicians were at pains to appeal to the UK, those days are gone. Already back in September 2011, the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) gave an interview with Der Spiegel, in which he was quite blunt about the UK’s role in Europe. It is worth quoting what he said verbatim (my translation):

Schröder: … In any case, it’s not the new member-states who are causing the real problems.

SPIEGEL: Then who?

Schröder: The biggest problems are created by Britain. Britain is not in the Euro. But the British always want to be involved in decision-making regarding a common economic area. The two things just do not go together. And secondly, the British have been extremely reluctant about any kind of further integration, and that is putting it very diplomatically.

SPIEGEL: You mean that they simply blocked any proposals to this effect?

Schröder: Exactly.

And only this week, Volker Kauder, the influential leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary party in the Bundestag delivered a pugnacious speech at the CDU’s Leipzig congress. In it, he singled out the UK for especial criticism, pointing out that, as a member of the EU, the British DID bear direct responsibility for the Eurozone’s success. And in the context of Germany’s proposals for a tax on financial transaction (vigorously opposed by the City), he declared (again, my translation) “Only looking out for your own interests and not being prepared to contribute at all – that cannot be the message that we allow the British to get away with”.

These are not fringe politicians, and such public statements give an indication that Germany has probably lost patience with the UK and is no longer prepared to make any significant allowances for its particular historical position within the EU. That of course has major implications for the future: there are tricky negotiations around the corner regarding the next EU budget, and it is difficult to see countries lining up willing to defend the UK’s budget rebate. But on other issues too which really matter to the UK – liberalisation of energy markets, implementation of the single market, CAP reform – it will be others defining the agenda, not the British Government.

At the end of October 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote in the Observer that “Being shoved to the margins, or retreating there voluntarily, would be economic suicide”. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly as if that is precisely where we are already.

Welcome to Aston Centre for Europe

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Welcome to the Aston Centre for Europe blog!

Aston Centre for Europe has had an exciting year.  We have grown in size, won research and event funding and put on a series of interesting events. Over the last twelve months, we’ve hosted  high level speakers who addressed our audiences on a diverse range of topics.

In December 2009, we started with the first of our series of events funded by the European Commission. We discussed the European parliament with Prof Simon Hix as the keynote speaker, with Gisela Stuart MP, Malcolm Harbour MEP, Phil Bennion (Liberal Democrat MEP candidate), and David Harley (former Deputy Secretary General of the European Parliament and a practitioner fellow of Aston Centre for Europe) taking part in the debate.

In April 2010 we hosted a conference on the Legacies of 1989, another European Commissions funded event, which examined democratic change in Eastern Europe. We were very privileged to hear Sir Christopher Mallaby, former British Ambassador to East Germany, Prof Alan Mayhew (Sussex) and Prof George Kolankiewicz (UCL) who provided a fascinating insight into the twenty years of democratic change in Eastern Europe.

Our final event of the academic year was a high level conference on Green Growth and Sustainability.  The conference was funded by the European Commission and we worked very closely with the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. At the conference we heard from Ian Robertson (BMW AG), Peter Vis, (Head of Cabinet to European Commissioner for Climate Action), Fiona Harvey (Financial Times), Prof David Bailey (Coventry University), Naresh Kumar (Rolls Royce), Chris White MP and Paul Tilsley (Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council) amongst many other notable speakers.

In between the larger conferences, we kept busy hosting smaller lectures and guest speakers.  We discussed the Cambodian genocide with Denise Affonco; examined the reasons behind global conflicts with Prof Daniel Chirot (University of Washington); talked about Eand examined the future of the Euro with David Marsh, and discussed population change with Prof Jane Falkingham during the British Science Festival 2010.

Our series of exciting events and lectures continues this year. To make sure you keep up to date with the latest, join our email list by sending us your details to europe@aston.ac.uk