It is an irony of history -- on this very day 20 years ago, the Maastricht Treaty was signed, bringing the European Union into existence. On Dec. 9 and 10, 1991, the 12 leaders of the European Community agreed to the groundbreaking agreement and a historic project was set on its way.
Two decades on, and with the European debt crisis in full flow, the EU is facing its toughest test so far. Now one person stands out as the most divisive figure: David Cameron. Following marathon talks on Thursday night, the British prime minister vetoed a change in the EU treaties as called for by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Cameron's use of his veto has provided for much discontent within the European Parliament. "It was a mistake to admit the British into the European Union," said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a prominent German MEP with the business-friendly Free Democrats, and vice chair of ALDE, the liberal block in the European Parliament. The UK must now renegotiate its relationship with the EU, he said. "Either they do it by themselves, or the EU will be founded anew -- without Great Britain," Lambsdorff said. "Switzerland is also a possible role model for the British," he added, refering to the fiercely independent stance of the Alpine country, which is not an EU member.
Harsh Attacks and Clear Frustration
There has also been sharp criticism of Cameron's attitude from the co-chairman of the Greens group in the European Parliament, Franco-German politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit. "Cameron is a coward," he said. He accused the British prime minister of not wanting to deal with the conflict over the Europe Union within his Conservative Party. Cameron, he said, had "manoeuvred himself into a populist corner" from which he would no longer emerge.
Elmar Brok, a member of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union and foreign policy spokesman for the center-right European People's Party (EPP), said: "If you're not willing to stick to the rules, you should keep your mouth shut."
These are harsh attacks. But despite all the frustration, the message is clear: The European project can not be allowed to collapse because of the UK's obstinate attitude towards the debt crisis. Cameron's critics are sending a clear signal to London: If necessary, things can carry on without you. Those critics are clearly hoping that Britain's decision will come back to haunt it at some point, and that the country will come to realize what a serious mistake it was committing when it turned its back on Europe.
This approach is also apparently being followed at the highest level. The 17 euro-zone states, together with at least six and maybe as many as nine other EU countries, aim to conclude a separate stability treaty in order to defuse the debt crisis. It's a risky step, because it is not yet clear whether the proposal can easily be implemented legally. But those member states are also sending a signal, namely that they can move forward without the British.
Cameron's behavior in Brussels has also irritated many MEPs. The British prime minister downright flaunted his veto, or at least so it appears to his critics. "What was on offer was not in Britain's interest … so I didn't sign up to it," Cameron said. A little later, he made it clear that his country would not want to adopt the euro in the future either -- he was happy not to be in the Schengen Agreement, and happy not to be in the euro, he said.
'You Can't Be a Little Bit Pregnant'
Manfred Weber, vice chairman of the European People's Party, was annoyed about Cameron's "distancing rhetoric." But at the same time he believes it was ill-advised from the viewpoint of the prime minister: "The country is primarily damaging itself." The British must now decide if they want to be in the EU club or not, he says. "The game of always wanting to have a say in the debate while also wrecking every compromise is not acceptable in the long run," says Weber. "You can't be a little bit pregnant."
Reinhard Bütikofer, vice chairman of the Greens/European Free Alliance block in the European Parliament, also sees Britain as facing an historic decision. He would like the British to continue being part of the fold, he said, "but on Europe's terms, rather than Cameron's." It was not, however, currently necessary to exert excessive pressure, let alone make threats, he said, explaining that the prime minister's veto was a clear "sign of weakness."
Others were rather more forceful in that respect. Elmar Brok, for example, feels that the UK is one of Europe's most important partners, "but in a crisis, a partner must above all be loyal and ready to compromise." The other partners must now marginalize Britain, "so that the country comes to feel its loss of influence," he said.
Manfred Weber also urged EU member states to demonstrate more self-confidence. "It must be made clear to Great Britain: Either you want the whole package, or you can leave it alone."
Some believe they already know how to make that happen, namely by taking a clear political stance. "Now," says Green politician Cohn-Bendit, "we must put pressure on the British and force them, by implementing tough regulations on financial markets, to decide if they want out of the EU or if they want to stay inside."