A wimpish speech

By choosing to put party politics before national and European interests, David Cameron has above all shot himself in the foot.

So, which flag will you choose Dave? Demotix/Allesandro Serranò. All rights reserved.
So, which flag will you choose Prime Minister? Demotix/Allesandro Serranò. All rights reserved.

In France, there is a saying that roughly translates to ‘the mountain gave birth to a mouse’. Given the amount of anticipation and scope of the challenge it was supposed to address, the speech Mr Cameron delivered yesterday was a shrewmouse.

Now to give the Prime Minister some credit, his analysis of what plagues the EU today (the instability of the Eurozone, the problem of competing in a globalised world, and the democratic deficit) was honest and fairly accurate. His speech was most carefully balanced, at the price of lacking passion (but we are, of course, talking about David Cameron here). That's for the positive.

Now for a long, long list of what didn't work. The main problem with this speech, as is obvious now that the commentocracy has closed in, is that it ultimately doesn't satisfy anybody. The Prime Minister's intention was to address the question of withdrawal in a way that would silence discussion for a while, at least until the planned referendum's campaign kicks in, to buy time to renegotiate EU membership in a way more compatible with British demands. In that, it failed – and it might prove to be a deadly gamble for Cameron.

On the domestic scene, this is a huge victory for the UK Independence Party and the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. They forced the PM to seriously consider an option that he described as ‘mad’ only a few weeks ago. Cameron's move gave UKIP both credibility and the most shoo-in electoral platform in recent times for the 2015 elections.

Did the PM at least manage to shush dissent among his own troupes? Like many Eurosceptic Tories, Peter Bone almost couldn't believe his luck, telling The Spectator, "A year ago, if I had said to you the Prime Minister is going to renegotiate the terms of the EU towards a Common Market and then put it to the British people in an In/Out referendum, you would have said I was barking mad!" The Eurosceptics are hailing Cameron as their new hero now, of course, but how long until they realise the PM will be campaigning on the other side – that is, if the referendum ever happens? The lofty rebellion by some Tory MPs in the past weeks is but a prelude to a referendum campaign that might tear the party apart. Cameron has opened a can of worms.

But what did Europe make of the speech? Well, not much. Cameron's talk this morning at the World Economic Forum in Davos was apparently given a lukewarm reception by European leaders. Yesterday, Italian PM Mario Monti (who is, in fairness, not exactly known for his support of democratic participation) declared that, "Europe does not need unwilling members". Angela Merkel politely said (do read this in a German accent): "We are of course prepared to talk about British wishes, but we must always bear in mind that other countries have other wishes and we must, in the end, always find a fair compromise". And French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, not shying away from clichés, took "an example which our British friends will understand. Let's imagine Europe is a football club and you join. Once you're in it you can't say: 'Let's play rugby'."

Of course there is general unease about Britain's move on the continent. The European press was quick to interpret this as a way for Cameron to get preferential treatment and force his own interpretation of Europe down the throat of the other 26 – a 'Europe à la carte' centred on the Single Market, with social, environmental and judicial competences repatriated under national premises. In Le Monde, Marc Roche summarised these concerns by calling Mr Cameron a 'funambulist', who yields to anti-European sentiment at home while trying to remain a credible interlocutor in European negotiations.

A very awkward position, you might say – for Cameron and other European leaders. Why would you even engage in predictably long and difficult negotiations with a partner who has already stated he will leave the negotiation table if the reached compromise doesn't please him? Der Spiegel makes clear that, on the continent, Cameron's two-phased approach (first negotiations, then approval of these changes by the British people) provokes scepticism. What happens if all parties reach a compromise conformable to Britain's wishes (or rather, the British Eurosceptics' wishes) and the UK then rejects it? Will all these hard-fought reforms be thrown away because their instigator walked out of the room?

2017 is a long way down the road: who knows what Europe will look like by then. Remember, only one year ago, 2012 kicked off in a generally morose climate, when PIIGS was the buzziest of all buzzwords, and the only thing Europeans agreed on re the euro was that it was a dumb idea to begin with. Angela Merkel appeared to hold the whole fate of the continent in her indecisive hands.

From Greek election scares (with Syriza and Golden Dawn as the boogeymen du jour) to countless inconclusive European summits, the first half of 2012 was bumpy. But then, somehow, spirits were lifted, Berlin finally decided to be the team player it should have been from the outset and agreements (over the Stability Mechanism and additional bailouts for highly indebted countries) were found. Cherry on the cake, the EU became the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in one when it received its Nobel Peace Prize. A wave of optimism was said to have overcome all European fears in the closing months (even the name of our debate, Can Europe make it?, sounds unnecessarily alarming now).

But the thing with situations that radically change over the course of a year is that they may very well change again over the next. Europe is not saved yet, and the same structural problems remain. Long-term solutions to address economic imbalances, lack of economic competitiveness and the democratic deficit (to take only those problems Cameron mentioned) are yet to be found, and the increased pressure of the British referendum doesn't help.

Britain has - so far - missed its chance to be the proactive reformist it should have been: by distancing itself from its partners and putting a knife under their chins, it is simply refusing to take its responsibility as one of the greatest powers inside the Union. Britain could have been what Merkel's Germany is today, the powerhouse of Europe, and it chose not to. It is therefore hypocritical to complain it doesn't like what the EU has become. And egoistic to put Europe as a whole in an even more uncertain situation which will make further negotiations even more complicated.

But shouldn't we cheer for an EU finally becoming more democratically accountable to at least some of its people? Sadly, in this case an initially attractive proposal, i.e. let the people decide if they are satisfied enough with the EU to stay in the club, becomes dangerous. In the end, you transfer the European authorities' carte blanche to the British voters, who are now in a position to influence the fate of all 500+ million European citizens. To think the day-to-day politics of a single member state will further dictate the whole European agenda in the next years is a saddening thought.

Ultimately, Cameron's real achievement has been involuntary - to underline the need for more direct democratic control over EU institutions. If the EU isn't able to offer more mechanisms for its citizens to have their say, we shouldn't be surprised the only way national governments respond to public pressure is with the bluntness of in/out referendums. Let this be a lesson for us: if Europeans don't demand that our voices be heard as part of the new institutional arrangement the British bid may trigger, we should expect more and more European countries to start packing their bags.

About the author

David Krivanek is an Associate Editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @David_Krivanek. His openDemocracy blog is called Esplanade.