Whatever Prime Minister David Cameron says in his speech in the Netherlands today on redefining Britain’s role in the European Union, it is likely to upset someone. Europe is a perennially hot topic within British politics, and the Conservative Party in government has brought it to the fore.
Cameron’s own party is fiercely divided on Europe, with pro-EU stalwarts such as Ken Clarke sitting alongside politicians who would prefer that Britain left the European Union altogether. The prime minister, for his part, pledged to review “all aspects” of the UK’s relations with the EU during the election, and hold a referendum on any changes. As banking and fiscal union in Europe, struggling with economic turmoil, becomes increasingly likely Britain will have to decide which side it is on.
And it is not an insignificant debate. The EU accounts for around 40 percent of British exports in goods and services, and as the world’s largest economy and trading block, accounts for 24 percent of global trade. But there are few things that rile the British public like the phrase “EU bureaucrats”, particular when it comes in tandem with legislation “imposed” from Brussels. In the wake of the financial crisis, which saw Greece almost collapse, and Italy, Spain and even Germany falter, there are plenty within Britain who feel the country would be better going it alone. A report this week by a group of backbench Conservative MPs has brought the argument to the door of the prime minister, and those behind it — who claim to be as many as 100 politicians — will be eagerly awaiting Cameron’s speech today. The prime minister pledged during the election to review “all aspects” of the UK’s relations with the EU and to hold a referendum on any such changes. He looks poised to make good on that promise. “The status quo in the European Union is no longer an option. The Eurozone is facing up to the inevitable consequences of the financial crisis, and is moving toward fiscal and banking union,” the MPs wrote in the report, titled Fresh Start. “This is not a path that the British people will go down.” “We must articulate and negotiate a new and different relationship for ourselves whilst remaining a full member of the EU.”
Others, most notably Cameron’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, have warned that now is not the time to start rocking the boat on Europe, particularly talk of a referendum. The British economy is reeling, on the verge of a triple dip recession, and alienating its biggest trading partner, he argues, is unadvisable. The fact that Cameron could be poised to hold a referendum on Europe after the next election, is even more worrying, he says.
“The eurozone is changing. That is obvious. We do not know yet when that will manifest itself in a new treaty and we don’t know if that new treaty does become a reality whether that will ask new things of the United Kingdom,” Clegg told BBC Radio Four earlier this week.
“All I am saying is we should be very careful at a time when the British economy is still haltingly recovering from the worst economic shock in a generation to create a very high degree and prolonged period of uncertainty because, in my view, uncertainty is the enemy of growth and jobs.”
Clegg’s feeling is that if business thinks that there could be a major change to Britain’s relationship with Europe, it will be on the minds of potential investors for the next three years. It would almost be better to hold a referendum now, although Clegg, who is pro-EU, unlike his political partner, would likely not favor that course of action either. The Labor Party has also waded into the debate in a typically non-committal way, arguing that returning some of the UK’s powers from Brussels could make the EU “work better for Britain”, while US President Barack Obama has warned Britain not to act rashly in its dealings with partners over the English Channel.
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The debate, however contentious, is essential if only to stop Cameron’s backbench allies from open revolt, but the worry is that the rhetoric from the Conservative right could cloud the real issues. Euroskeptics have long argued that Norway and Sweden have remained outside the EU bloc, but in reality both countries have to abide by many EU laws.