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Explaining Cameron’s Confrontational Approach to EU Reform

Written by Nathan Jones.

In his speech to the Conservative Party conference on 7 October 2015, David Cameron described the UK’s role in Europe thus, ‘We don’t duck fights.  We get stuck in.  We fix problems.  That’s how we kept our border checkpoints when others decided to take theirs down.  It’s how we kept the pound when others went head first into the Euro.  Because we do things our way.  We get rebates. We get out of bailouts … Britain is not interested in “ever closer union” – and I will put that right’.  By contrast, in a joint speech to the European Parliament on the same day, the leaders of France and Germany, Angela Merkel and François Hollande, outlined their vision for an ever closer union, using the immigration issue to justify their case.  Merkel pointed out that, ‘In the refugee crisis, we must not succumb to the temptation of falling back into national action. Quite the contrary, now we need more Europe’.  Hollande argued that ‘We need not less Europe but more Europe. Europe must affirm itself otherwise we will see the end of Europe, our demise’.  Both leaders also emphasised the need for a more integrated eurozone to strengthen Europe’s power.

Cameron argued in his speech that he was ‘interested in two things: Britain’s prosperity and Britain’s influence’.  The problem for him is that although it is possible to remain prosperous while at odds with the French and German direction for the future of the EU, it is very difficult to obtain significant influence.  David Cameron’s demands for EU reform to give national parliaments more power to block EU legislation and to concede further opt-outs for the UK make it clear that he wants to reform the EU in a way that is incompatible with the ‘more Europe’ philosophy of Merkel and Hollande.

His approach to demanding reforms has been interpreted by some in the EU as being confrontational.  While this method may succeed in the adversarial debating environment of the House of Commons, it is less effective in the consensus based environment of the EU institutions.  This point was emphasised by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who reminded the British Prime Minister that ‘it takes two to tango’.  To reform the EU thus requires a consensus, yet Cameron’s approach is not consensual.  Cameron is not without allies within the EU regarding reform, so the fact that he chooses to take such a confrontational approach to negotiating with other EU leaders is a puzzle.  His approach can be explained by a number of factors: UK party politics, the UK in/out referendum, power in the EU, and his legacy.

Cameron is under pressure from eurosceptics in his party.  In order to demonstrate to the moderate eurosceptics that the UK is able to exert sufficient influence within the EU he needs to show that he has obtained a deal which is aligned with Conservative preferences.  This explains why his list of demands focuses on enhancing competition and trade and pulling the UK out of further political integration.  While any deal would be insufficient to appease those who are completely opposed to the European project, it may be enough to attract sufficient support from moderate eurosceptic Tories to bolster Cameron’s position in campaigning to stay in the EU.

Cameron wants to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.  In order to achieve this, he needs to ensure that his demands are strongly worded and are likely to be well received by the electorate.  For example, the latest eurobarometer survey shows that the UK has the lowest level of public support for economic and monetary union in the form of the euro of all EU member states.  Obtaining concessions or facilitating change in this area would enable Cameron to demonstrate to the British public that he had achieved a change of which they would approve.  As a result, his tough negotiating stance with other EU leaders could be viewed as a way to encourage a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.

There is also the issue of power.  Merkel, while willing to negotiate with Cameron, has ruled out changes to EU legislation on migration and discrimination.  This, combined with Germany being the leading player in sorting out the financial crisis in the eurozone, has helped to convey the impression that the United Kingdom is positioned on the margins of the EU.  This is a misleading impression, since Cameron has chosen to avoid playing a leading role in bailouts and discussions about the euro.  The British Prime Minister is, instead, trying to create a more prominent role for the UK by putting forward a reform agenda to favour British interests.

Finally, there is the issue of Cameron’s legacy.  Cameron stated in 2013 that he wanted to be the Prime Minister who secured the UK’s place in a reformed EU.  To establish the more competitive and economically focused EU that he desires is a case of history repeating itself.  When Tony Blair was British Prime Minister he forged an alliance with José María Aznar in an attempt to form an alternative axis of power within the EU to pull it in a more neo-liberal and intergovernmental direction, while Jaques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder maintained that closer union was the way forward.  It is, however, unclear whether Cameron would be able to find any EU leaders willing to forge such an alliance, making it difficult for him to achieve this legacy.

Cameron’s stance towards the EU appears to be one of creating ‘fortress UK’; a country which solely engages with the rest of the EU on its own terms.  This approach may prove popular domestically, however, it risks reducing British influence, making it less likely that Cameron will achieve his reforms.  The British Prime Minister thus faces a paradox, because, his uncompromising reform agenda may win him votes in the UK, but leave him isolated within the EU.  For the UK to remain influential in the EU it needs to be at its heart, not on the periphery.

Nathan Jones is an independent reseacher and former PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by European Commission.

Published inConservativesEUEuropean Politics

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