While Prime Minister David Cameron was making his long-awaited speech on the future of the U.K.’s relationship with the rest of Europe this week, Brussels was shrouded in fog. Inevitably, a number of European newspapers recalled the old joke on British insularity, allegedly from a 1930 Daily Mirror headline: "Fog in Channel: Continent Cut Off."
Cameron, in his speech, tried to play it both ways: He wants a new relationship with Europe and is at the same time determined that the U.K. should remain inside the European Union. Legislation will be prepared for a referendum to put the issue to the people, and after the next election in 2015, assuming a Conservative victory, Britons will vote in the first half of the next four-year to five-year parliament.
Leaders across Europe gave the speech a cool reception. Sweden is generally sympathetic to the U.K.'s position in Europe, but a pithy tweet by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, widely quoted in today’s newspapers, seems to crystallize what most European opinion makers think of the Cameron speech: "Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess." (It is 28 because Croatia should join in July.)
This morning’s papers across Europe reflect a mix of irritation and anger with Cameron, as well as some sadness. Les Echos, the French business daily, runs a front-page headline: "The Great Britain of David Cameron provokes Europe." It also has a column by Nicolas Madelaine titled "Double or Quits," indicating the sense that Cameron is gambling with the EU.
Cameron, according to Madelaine, is betting that his new policy will keep his party together over Europe, and that even if he can't get what he wants in any new negotiation, he'll still be able to persuade the British public to vote yes -- and to prevent a referendum from being transformed into a vote to punish the government of the day. "He has not found a winning formula," says Madelaine.
Italy’s Corriere della Sera runs a front-page commentary by Franco Venturini titled "The Impatient English." He thinks Cameron’s threat of a divorce is motivated less by political calculations than by culture and history. Of course, he argues, an attempt will be made to find an "anti-divorce compromise." He does not sound very optimistic:
Within reasonable limits, Europeans will seek an agreement with London. But the task is up to Cameron, now that the game has begun, to explain to the English that, with or without fog, they will remain isolated (even from the USA) if they vote "out."
Cameron's speech doesn't rate the front page in France's right-leaning daily Le Figaro, which is running a piece by researchers Thierry Chopin and Jean- Francois Jamet on exactly how Britain could leave and yet stay in Europe’s single market -- which is what many legislators in Cameron's Conservative party want.
They argue, as does Cameron in his speech, that leaving the EU but staying in the single market, similar to Norway's position, is a nonstarter for the U.K., because Norway has no say in how the rules are made. So they suggest giving votes to non-EU members when it comes to the working of the single market:
For the United Kingdom, leaving the EU but maintaining a key role at the heart of the single market would constitute a reasonable compromise. Such a statute would not prevent the United Kingdom from participating on a case-by-case basis in other EU initiatives (for example in matters of defense or foreign policy.) But it would be a guarantee of participation based on mutual interest, avoiding frustration on either side of the Channel.
In this way, they argue, the euro-zone countries could integrate closer, both politically and financially, but at the same time non-EU members would have a say in the running of the single market. Implicit here is another idea. This two-level Europe might accommodate not just the U.K., but problematic potential members such as Turkey and Ukraine.
While Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has said a compromise should be found with the U.K. to keep it in the EU, the weekly Der Spiegel's online edition is scathing. It runs an opinion piece titled: "Europe’s Scaredy-Cat." Cameron’s speech, argues Christoph Scheuermann, was boring and the British leader is running scared of euro skeptics in his own party, as well as of the anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party, which has been draining support from the Conservatives.
Cameron's vision of Europe is a free trade area with access to the beaches of the Mediterranean. Beyond that, he doesn't associate the project with a past or a future. Apart from vague demands like competitiveness, flexibility and fairness, he has no idea how the EU should develop. His thinking on Europe is indecisive and chained to the present. What Europe witnessed on Wednesday was a speech delivered by a politician prone to knee-jerk reactions who lacks values or a vision. He lacks gravity. Cameron floats above Europe like an astronaut.
Belgium’s Le Soir is equally harsh. Its front-page headline is "Perfidious Cameron," drawing on the centuries-old continental description of the U.K. as "Perfidious Albion." Inside Jurek Kuckiwiecz writes an editorial titled "Brixit: A Suicidal Adventure." There is no question, he says, of accepting a compromise at any price, and going against the wishes of the majority of EU members, just to satisfy one. "That is the red line: that of democracy so much vaunted by Mr. Cameron."
If ever there has been a story that will continue to run and run, it is this one. It will be sad, difficult and enormously time-consuming. With the consolidation of the euro area, a new Europe is already emerging and, whatever the outcome, it is already affecting Britain’s relationship with its partners, with portents for the future.
Nicholas Whyte, a longtime observer of EU politics, says the U.K.’s influence on decision making in Brussels is fast diminishing. The attitude is: "Why should we do you any favors if you are gone in five years? No one wants to be in a box with Britain," according to Whyte, who now works for the advisory group Independent Diplomat, which helps countries, such as South Sudan, to lobby in Brussels. His words seem logical, whatever the democratic merits of Cameron's in-out referendum.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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