British Prime Minister David Cameron is currently steering his country on a confrontation course with Brussels. Driven by the euroskeptics in his Conservative Party, he wants to offer his people an in-or-out vote on European Union membership in 2017. By doing so, he is hoping to force Britain's EU partners to provide the country with further opt-outs from common European regulations. In a not very subtle way, Cameron has threatened that the British people may vote to exit the EU if his demands go unmet.
In negotiations over the European Commission's seven-year budget from 2014 to 2020, the British have also proven to be tough negotiators. In Brussels, the leaders of the 27 EU member states are meeting on Thursday for a special summit that has been convened in response to the collapse of the previous effort to agree on the Commission's long-term financing in November. Together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Cameron is trying to push through billions more in cuts to the proposed budget drafted by European Council President Herman van Rompuy, the head of the powerful body representing EU leaders that has the final say on many EU policy matters.
Pro-European politicians in Britain are following the undiplomatic approach with concern. Former Foreign Secretary David Miliband of the Labour Party has accused Cameron of lacking strategic abilities. If he alienates his partners, Miliband warns in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Cameron could undermine his real goal: reforming the EU.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Miliband, is Britain seriously considering leaving the EU?
Miliband: I am sorry that a loud section of the Conservative Party now advocates that position. I trust the good common sense of the British people. The unique thing about this country is that the government has put (the option of an) exit on the table. It is not that they are for an exit, but they have put it on the table alongside reform. I am pro-reform and anti-exit.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Prime Minister David Cameron says the same thing. What's wrong with his plan to increase reform pressure in the EU?
Miliband: Cameron doesn't want to be the prime minister who takes Britain out of the European Union. He's skeptical, not hysterical about the EU. But the problem with his promise of a referendum is that Britain's relationship with Europe in the next few years is going to be defined by the danger of a potential exit, not the positive vision of reform. Also, in order to please his party, the prime minister has to demonize the current European Union. There are certainly faults and problems, but it shouldn't be demonized as this gargantuan beast that is eating up everybody's money. The EU costs the British people £1 (€1.15) per person per week.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are so many people in Britain so critical of the EU?
Miliband: Britain is not the only country where there is a crisis of confidence in EU leadership. There is a strong sense around Europe that we've got a magnificent institution of the 20th century that needs to be remoulded for the 21st century. Second, Britain's history with the EU has never been a smooth one. It was a difficult pregnancy. Over the past few years, we pro-Europeans have also been very defensive on EU issues. There was a lot of reform when Labour was in power, the common agricultural budget is down from 60 to 40 percent, there is a common foreign policy, (and it is) an environmental union as well as an economic union. These are changes that are good for the EU and good for Britain. But they are often invisible to the people of Britain.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Even the Labour Party sounds increasingly euroskeptic. How can this national mood be changed?
Miliband: The Tories' problem is that many of them are too obsessed with Europe. Labour's issue is that Europe is now agreed policy -- like the EU "acquis." It is in the party DNA to be pro-Europe and pro-reform, so it is not being discussed much. The Labour Party is not euroskeptic. Instead, there is a recognition that social democrats need to be hard-headed reformers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will Britain hold a referendum in 2017 no matter who is governing?
Miliband: We've always said there will be a referendum once there is a shift of power from London to Brussels. That is the law. At the next election, Labour will set out the details of its position for the next parliament.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What priorities would you set for EU reforms?
Miliband: The Tories say the big issue is repatriation of powers. I say the big issues are innovation, energy, infrastructure and migration -- and, of course, the allocation of the budget matters to a lot of these. Some of the points Cameron makes are appealing to other Europeans. Take the argument that the European Parliament should not travel to Strasbourg. That is common sense. Those small things bring the EU into disrepute and should be addressed. But my fear is that these legitimate interests are getting undermined by the sense that Britain is on the exit road.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you rate Angela Merkel's performance in the EU?
Miliband: It is an election year, I am not going to put myself in the center of the domestic political debate. But there is an important German lesson for Britain. The last two years have been some of the most testing times for Germany's leaders in their relationship with the EU. But at every point, both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats have kept the strategic interests of Germany in the forefront of their minds, whatever the short-term tactical issues. They have never lost sight of the strategic interest in the development of the European Union as a major player in the New World Order. The prime minister's recent speech, on the other hand, was more tactical than strategic. The working time directive is hardly the defining issue of the future of the European Union.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will Britain ever join the euro zone?
Miliband: That is hard to see for the foreseeable future. The core argument for the euro was that it would drive convergence of member economies. That hasn't happened, so I cannot imagine the British public getting convinced. Still, that doesn't mean that we cannot be a major voice on energy reform or foreign policy. A two-tier Europe is not the way we want to go.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can Britain avoid being sidelined if the euro-zone countries become even more integrated?
Miliband: Well, we will certainly be sidelined if we walk off the pitch. But you can be a good European without being in the euro. Cameron says he wants to advance the single market for services. It is a good idea, but also one that requires more central control for the European Commission. If you want to advance the single market, you can't get that by devolution of power to London. There needs to be a consistency.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the idea of "ever-closer union" still valid?
Miliband: Yes, as a union of peoples. It is true that Britain has become very critical of the EU institutions, but at the same time it has become a very European country. There are more Europeans living here; there are more Brits living and doing business in the rest of Europe. From food to football to political debate, there is more interchange than in the old times of the famous headline: "Fog in the channel -- Continent cut off". That is not the world we live in anymore. That is the paradox: We are more European, but more skeptical of the EU institutions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The 27 EU leaders are currently negotiating a new seven-year financial framework for the European Commission for the period between 2014 and 2020. How can one demand further EU integration while at the same time insisting on freezing the budget needed to do that and also cutting salaries for EU civil servants?
Miliband: The idea that a budget round should conclude without more efficiency in the European institutions seems wrong. At times when all people in all countries have to tighten their belts, it is important to be a hard-headed pro-European.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is your vision: How will the European Union look like in 10 years?
Miliband: It will be an innovation-oriented, globally open collection of states and people. Britain and Germany, one of them in the euro, the other one out of the euro, will be two pillars of the European construction. This is not to exclude France, because the French-German alliance is special. But in spite of German and British differences, we have a lot of shared perspectives and common values.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For example?
Miliband: Germany knows what intense global competition is; so do we. Germany knows we need to improve multilateral international diplomacy; so do we. Germany knows that Europe is not to become a country, (that) it is a collection of nation-states. Together we should be pushing for the right kind of reforms. The sadness about the Conservatives' desire to get out of the EU is that it undermines this very vital relationship.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Britain will still be in the EU in 10 years?
Miliband: Yes, definitely. We will remain at the center of the EU. And we should remain at the center of the debate about the future of the EU.