This week I am going to move away from talking about my personal goals to comment on David Cameron’s recent speech on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. 

While its content is no longer a secret, based on the overflowing comment pages of the newspapers all around the world this week, the exact meaning of Cameron’s speech is still a matter of debate. Whether you agree with what he said or not, it is clear that this was far one of the most significant speeches of his career and places into question the role his country will play in the European Union or whether it will even remain a member of it. No Prime Minister since the United Kingdom joined the then European Economic Community in 1973, has sought to renegotiate the terms of British membership.

By Giandrea/Ssolbergj at en.wikipedia. Wikimedia Commons

By Giandrea/Ssolbergj at en.wikipedia. Wikimedia Commons

 Whether or not Cameron has been forced by Eurosceptic backbenchers into such a position remains to be seen. However, the timing of this move is reflective of greater disillusionment with the EU as a whole. Needless to say that the Eurozone debt crisis is leading to fundamental change in the way the EU operates, and the British public may be reluctant to go along with such measures. Of course the Union is no longer a mere common market that the UK joined in 1973. But it is no longer the same largely due to the fact that it has to acquire the instruments to administer the single market over time. Only last year, the fiscal compact was introduced in the Eurozone, seeking to correct years of macro-economic mismanagement. In light of the fact that the crisis has been so prolonged, it is easy to imagine that some members of the British public are now more skeptical of the European project altogether. However, support for the European Union has recently risen as media outlets have examined the tangible benefits of being in the Union has for Britain. Figures such as the three percent of GDP that would be wiped out by leaving the Union underlines the importance of reforming its institutions rather than abandoning them.

After having listened Cameron’s speech, I was left in no doubt that in his view the impetus of the European Union must be on the common market and restoring competitiveness. Now, more than ever, his party’s discomfort with the transfer of political power to Brussels is evident, as witnessed by him seeking to have the words “ever closer union” removed from the treaties. This suggestion, just as in his suggestion of a referendum, appears to represent backpedalling on commitments the UK has previously made to the European project. The wording of “an ever closer union” originated in the Treaty of Rome of 1957, and, since joining, the UK has ratified treaties that aimed to fulfil this desire. For example Treaty of Lisbon of 2007, which significantly advanced the framework along these lines, was ratified following legal procedure (and even High Court challenges) in the UK. To put it bluntly, it makes little sense to try and ignore this legacy and legal precedent the way Cameron is doing.

 It is worth adding a small note on Cameron’s view of European project, which, as I understand it, now involves the transfer of political power to Brussels rather than just economic. Cameron’s insistence that power remain with national parliaments, underlies his conception of the European integration as a zero-sum game; power is taken away from member states and given to Brussels. However, this approach is far too simplistic as the EU is best seen, when functioning effectively, as a plus-sum game in which the Union’s five hundred million citizens can speak with one voice rather than twenty seven. Ireland, with only four million people, is an ideal example of a country that has the opportunity to be represented and to have its voice heard by being part of a much larger union.

 Last but not least, Cameron added, without going into great detail, that he aimed to seek concessions or a UK opt-out from EU measures that would otherwise apply to all member states. If these concessions are made, Cameron insists that he will campaign for the UK to remain within the EU. Whether this means Cameron would campaign for the UK to leave the EU if these concessions aren’t is unknown, but it is clearly an attempt to strengthen his hand in the face of isolation from other members. It is hard to see how he will win the support he needs from other member states to achieve these concessions, given that they apply to the UK alone and not the others. Furthermore, if these are made, it will surely set a precedent that other members can follow, thereby undermining the European project.

Finally, we have to remember that concessions have already been made to protect British economic and political interests at the expense of European integration. One need only look at how Britain, by not being part of the Euro or Schengen zone, has far greater control over its own policy than most EU member states. Simply put, failing to acknowledge the concessions the EU has already made risks undermining the entire European project.

So, was Cameron’s speech a great political calculation or a gamble? Has he given the EU a five-year lifeline or five years of uncertainty? Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments.