Opinion: Europe's Scaredy-Cat

By Christoph Scheuermann in London

Fear drove David Cameron to promise Britain a referendum on EU membership. Fear of his party, fear of voters, and fear of the EU itself, which he neither fully understands nor has ever really been interested in. He wants Europe to be a free trade zone with beach access. He missed an opportunity on Wednesday to haul Britain back to the center of Europe.

Running scared? David Cameron giving his speech on Wednesday. Zoom
REUTERS

Running scared? David Cameron giving his speech on Wednesday.

In Britain, the golden rule of giving speeches is this: Whatever you do, don't be boring. Why did David Cameron forget that?

The British prime minister missed a great opportunity when he on Europe on Wednesday. He could have pulled his country from the periphery of the Continent back to the center. He could have proved that Britain's international clout is more important to him than getting patted on the back by his friends in the Conservative Party. He could at the very least have surprised his audience on this ice-cold Januaray day in London. But he didn't even do that.

Instead, Cameron promised a referendum on Britain's European Union membership after the next general election -- if he wins it. The referendum isn't a replacement for a true strategy on Europe. It merely represents an attempt to shake off a troublesome issue by postponing it to a later date.

The important questions still haven't been answered. What exactly does Britain expect of Europe? What laws and regulations does Cameron want to change? What parts of the treaty does he want to opt out of? And above all: How in heaven's name does Cameron propose to persuade the German chancellor, the French president and all the other European leaders that he should get to pick the raisins from the cake while everyone else gets the crumbs? Britain should remain in the EU, says Cameron, but he doesn't say under what conditions.

The essence of his speech was "yes, but."

No Values, No Vision

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.

He's isolated partly because his interest in Europe stems from fear rather than any desire to shape it. He's driven by fear of the euroskeptics in his party, of the voters, of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party and of the strange Brussels behemoth which Cameron feels threatened by because he doesn't understand it.

His party still hasn't forgiven him for failing to clinch an absolute majority in the last election. They see the coalition with the Liberal Democrats as a humiliation. The EU is their way of exacting revenge on Cameron for that. It's part of the reason why Cameron sees Europe mainly as a party political problem.

By trying to satisfy his radical backbenchers with the referendum pledge, he's launched into a game he can't win. The EU's other 26 governments won't let him opt out of parts of the existing accords because that would prompt others to demand concessions of their own. The Europe-haters in Cameron's party won't be satisfied because the leeway they want from Brussels isn't politically achievable.

What makes it all the sadder is that even though Cameron's motives are wrong, the timing of his speech is spot on. Britain has been waging a lively debate on Europe for months and one would wish that Germany and other countries showed similar passion -- though perhaps not such bitterness -- on the issue.

Europe must dare to address the fundamental questions, not despite the crisis but because of it. Cameron is right to question the growing budget of the European Commission, the EU's executive. How can one explain to the Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese that Brussels should get more money while they are being subjected to cutbacks? And Cameron is also right to point to the lack of democracy in EU decision-making.

One could almost be inclined to take the speech seriously, if one didn't know how bored and passionless Cameron has been about the European debate in the past.

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1. Cameron - The Scaredy-cat???
Mike W 01/24/2013
Whilst I & most of my fellow Englishmen would agree that David Cameron is a scaredy-cat, I suspect our reasons will differ from yours.... Cameron has looked at the polls in the UK and the realisation that the majority of UK voters want the EU question to be put before them in a referendum. He has taken on-board thet the EU sceptic party in the UK (UKIP) has overtaken his coalition partners in the voting intention polls and come to the conclusion that any party not offering the public it's chance to decide on the relationship going forward that the UK has with the EU will find themselves suffering badly at the next election. He is a scaredy-cat because he hasn't offered the referendum immediately. The majority of UK born citizens do not want the borders left open to Romainian and Bulgarian immigrants in 2014 and if the government don't act to stop the influx that all but the most optimistic are predicting will be in the 100's of thousands then there will be a serious backlash against mainstream political parties. The worm has turned and the people are now very, very angy at being signed up to various EU treaties without their permission being sought nor the consequences being properly thought through by those who were supposedly in the postion to do so. For mainly this fact, the Labour party will find it hard to be returned to office (that and thier economic incompetence) so the EU had better deal with Cameron of the UK will drift out of the EU. I know the Pro EU parties don't like to admit it but their whole project will start to unravel once a major country leaves the "club" and takes it's funding with it! The problem of people wanting to decide thier own fate within the EU will speread like wildfire!
2. Fear of Voters?
Mike W 01/24/2013
Surely, if one of his reasons for offering the referendum is "fear of voters", that would imply that the Voters want something he was afraid to give them....surely in a democracy, they should get it even if it isn't what the EUSSR want him to do?
3. I think...
sandvik83 01/24/2013
I think your speculation into motivation, particularly pertaining to the "vision" of Europe Cameron is supposedly lack is wrong. I believe he can see very clearly what Germany and France want out of the EU and wants no part of it, but in order to remain cordial with the leaders of those nations chooses not to overtly comment on his disdain for the increasingly federal nature of the EU. If the EU remained what it was in the beginning: a trade organisations that sought to facilitate international trade within Europe, the UK would have no problem. But as EU leaders strive to centralize power, seeking now for the right to veto national budget effectively eliminating national sovereignty, many countries want no part any more. National identities are still much, much stronger than the "European" one, and so long as this is the case, the expansion of powers the EU is aiming for will stumble and fall. Cameron was elected to serve the British people, not the French, German, Italian or Greek. The way the EU is evolving, not limiting its influence on the UK would be letting the influence of Britain wain, something the people he serves would never accept.
4. Schoolboy language
pmoseley 01/24/2013
Why do Der Spiegel reporters always seem to resort to a lower level of language in articles about the UK? Scaredy-cat is typical of this type of reporting - it's almost as if objective reporting is put on hold as soon as they start writing about the country. I assume they have been briefed by the Chief Editor or put the UK in dim light, whatever the topic. The fact is that the word 'referendum' is a scarey word in Brussels. It reeks of accountability, of democracy, of delays and obstacles and of the masses having their say. And the true scardey-cats are those leaders of EU states and the ossified EU commission who are afraid of anything which would interfere with their march to uniformity, integration and control. Instead, they deflect the debate by pointing the finger at the UK for even suggesting it by accusing it of not favouring the EU project and of cherry-picking. If it wasn't for the UK, plans for treaty change would have to involve referenda in several EU states. The UK's vetos have led a a great deal of relief that the European masses need not be consulted. However, further integration within the EU will need treaty changes and then there will be fireworks. Cameron is one of the few EU leaders who has the guts to say what many of the other scardey-cat leaders think but are afraid to say, and what many of their electorate are waiting for. Again the UK is raising the bar and the rest of the EU will eventually have to follow.
5. Europe's Scaredy-Cat
Fermaniard 01/24/2013
I do not agree with a lot of what is written in this article. It is too opinionated and lacks analysis. The headline may also be inappropriate. The term "Scaredy-Cat" ought only to be a label for a politician who does something he believes to be wrong. Cameron certainly does want the UK to remain in the EU but he probably also believes that calling for a referendum is the right decision for a nation that has been torn about the issue for more than a generation and needs to move on. He probably also believes that attempting to renegotiate the re-patriation of political powers is also correct. Now it is easy to dismiss the attempted renegotiation as a waste of time because the Germans will never agree. But is that all there is to it. Think about it further. If Cameron comes away with nothing, it strengthens the hand of the Europhobes. But this is not just about the repatriation of power. It is also about democratic deficit. It is interesting that the author of the Article conceded that was a problem in Europe. Unfortunately, little else was said. Look harder and you realise that the democratic deficit problem is directly tied up with the gambit to seek repatriation of power. Satisfy the democratic deficit problem and you give Cameron an excuse to claim that the UK should remain in Europe even if there are no concessions on repatriation. It is also interesting that much of the criticism made against European leaders (by writers from this magazine) in relation to the Euro crisis has been about failure to make decisions until the crisis gets too far out of control. A case can be made that the pressures now being put on Europe by David Cameron are what is needed in Europe to generate new thinking on constitutional issues.
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