The United Kingdom can certainly hold a referendum about the country's EU membership. But it would be unfair to make Europe wait until 2017. The continent needs to know sooner than that if the British want to leave.
Winston Churchill would certainly not have given David Cameron's speech. In 1946, when the horrors of World War II still hung over Europe like a dark and heavy fog, Churchill outlined his vision for the "United States of Europe". It was one of the first speeches to explicitly put the ideal of a peaceful, unified and prospering Europe into words. It was a speech full of hope.
David Cameron's speech did not inspire hope. Instead, it will be remembered as a failed attempt at demonstrating strength at a moment when reason was needed above all else. Driven by the desire to silence Euro skeptics within his own party, Cameron outlined demands that would worsen the working basis for the European Union. Already, Great Britain enjoys a fair number of special perks (the British budget rebate, no Schengen membership, and far-reaching opt-out powers in matters of judicial and domestic policy) and it appears that these exceptions are simply not enough. He seems to confuse the European Union with a mobile phone operator that allows each customer to pick the most advantageous tariff.
Britain needs the EU as much as the EU needs Britain
Of course the British are free to hold as many referenda as they like. But it is unfair to postpone the proposed vote on British EU-membership until 2017. The EU must not be held hostage by British home affairs just so Cameron's Tories have a potent campaign issue for their 2015 elections. Instead of using the possibility of a referendum as a threat and as a political pawn, Cameron should push for an early referendum. Dear Mr. Prime Minister, do it now! Europe needs clarity on what Great Britain wants.
David Cameron surely knows that Great Britain is too small to prosper independently in the 21st century. He also knows that his country would carry even less weight internationally without the European Union. His voters have a right to know this prior to a referendum, and Cameron should clearly communicate this to the British people. The EU, on the other hand, relies on a strong Britain to conclude the creation of the European single market. Germany needs Britain as a reliable partner for economic reforms that ensure that future budgets will be financed by real growth and not by growing levels of debt. In the European Parliament, too, we need our British colleagues for future collaboration.
Cameron's criticism is partly justified - but he draws the wrong conclusions
Cameron is rightly worried about the future of the EU. Without a doubt, the crisis has resulted in fundamental shifts in the Eurozone's structure that pose new challenges and demand new answers. Of course, EU competitiveness can be further improved. And there is a problem of increasing alienation between the EU and its citizens. But European parliamentarians are already tackling all the issues that Cameron has identified. His accusation that the institutions of the European Union lack democratic legitimacy falls short. If the Prime Minister focused more on the world outside of 10 Downing Street, he would not only recognize the work already being done by elected EU parliamentarians but also that meetings between the committees of the European Parliament and representatives from the different national assemblies are taking place regularly.
Once we examine the "principles" outlined by Cameron in his speech in greater detail, it can be noted that the Prime Minister hasn't exactly reinvented the European wheel. There are hardly any concrete solutions. This makes it hard to take Cameron seriously. For example, Cameron has demanded coordinated national responses in accordance with European structures to stabilize the Euro currency – hardly a new insight. He has also demanded that non-members should be granted access to the European single market. The Polish government already proposed a similar initiative several months ago and received positive feedback for it. Criticizing the heavy regulatory hand of the European Commission is hardly a new insight either – and Cameron should not forget that his government usually sits at the negotiating table in Brussels and has supported the overwhelming number of decisions.
Another criticism focuses on a question that has often been neglected inside the insular world of Brussels: Once member-states have transferred powers from their respective capitals to EU institutions, is there a process through which the transfer of authority might be reversed? Cameron is right to point to the Laeken Declaration, but he fails to identify concrete executive and legislative powers that should be transferred back to individual member states.
Recently, the "Future of Europe Group", comprised of eleven European foreign ministers, has tried to identify possible areas for reform in its final report (tellingly, the British foreign minister did not want to be included in the group). One does not have to agree with each individual argument to recognize the report as the first serious and comprehensive attempt to sketch out a future roadmap for the European Union.
"Splendid isolation" is not the solution
The German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and his European colleagues have focused on all the issues that David Cameron mentioned as "principles" in his speech, and they have outlined solutions. It's not surprising that the eleven representatives don't agree on every proposal. The EU is a complex entity. Even the mere attempt to tackle the thorny question of institutional reform deserves more attention than the report of the "Future of Europe Group" has thus far received.
It's lamentable that David Cameron did not have time to study the report before penning his own speech. Otherwise he might have opted for more hopeful language and given a speech that resonated positively not just within Great Britain but also throughout Europe – just like Winston Churchill's original speech. Unfortunately, Cameron has achieved the opposite: he is leading his country and himself into isolation.
This article was first published in The European on 5 February. Thanks go to the author and the editors for permission to republish here.