Getting the Math Wrong
BERLIN -- British Prime Minister David Cameron came to Brussels expecting a Europe of 17 and 10. He left behind a Europe of 26 and 1. His veto of a treaty intended for all of Europe’s 27 member states, promoting greater fiscal union within the eurozone’s present 17 members, was certainly historic. But this was not the sort of history that anyone should feel proud of making. This was a victory of short-term tactical considerations over long-term strategic interests. At the end of ten long hours of fractious negotiations, the only winners were Cameron’s Euroskeptic Members of Parliament.
For them, this is the first salvo in their war for a fundamental renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s relations with Brussels. Cameron certainly did not win; his “leadership” in vetoing the treaty is understood even within his own party as resulting from weakness rather than strength. His government didn’t win; the coalition is straining at the seams. The pro-European Liberal Democrat narrative – that by being in government with the Conservative Party they are providing much needed moderation from the inside – has been shot to bits. The 1.3 million people employed in the financial services industry in Britain, in whose name Cameron deployed his veto, didn’t win either; the City of London now waits with bated breath to learn how it will be affected by decisions made by a group in which it no longer has representation. Nor did the many more million people beyond the City’s square-mile win; Cameron used his veto and got nothing for it.
Now either the eurozone survives within a new-look Europe over which Britain’s influence is limited, or it falls apart, with disastrous consequences all round. But it is also far from clear that the “new Europe” has won. Up to 26 member states now face a turgid time with their own populaces, parliaments, and lawyers as they try to fashion this new accord. There will probably be casualties along the way, with Ireland a prime contender courtesy of its referendum requirement. Meanwhile, Europe still faces the same crisis of sovereign debt that it did before the Council met this past weekend. The new fiscal compact, once it is agreed, might well help eurozone countries avoid similar crises in the future, but the crisis of the moment will still need resolving. Finally, Europe will be weaker if it has on its periphery rather than in its midst one of the world’s major financial centers and most capable military powers. It did not need to be like this.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel later commented that she didn’t think Cameron was ever really “at the table.” He was, but he was misreading the game. Were France and Germany meant to haggle more to keep the U.K. on board? And if they refused to fold, as Cameron had feared they might, could the U.K. lead the other non-eurozone member states in heading up a smaller, but still influential, outer core that would keep Europe focused on the broader, rather than the deeper, picture? Cameron’s strategy was a reasonable one, at least at the outset. The problem was that his strategy never evolved. Had Cameron’s team spent as much time listening to the reaction their demands for concessions were eliciting as they did making these demands in the first place, they might have understood earlier which way the cards were falling and adapted accordingly.
For example, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski had warned Cameron publicly in Berlin only weeks beforehand not to count on Poland, another non-eurozone member, as an ideological ally. In laying out his vision for deeper integration, he addressed the U.K. directly: “We would prefer you to join in, but if you cannot, please allow us to forge ahead.” Meanwhile Britain’s lists of demands continued to be submitted on more private channels but were met with total silence. Should these have been clues that the formula of 17 and 10 might not hold? Had this been understood, cards could have been played differently.
Why not, for example, seize on the Commission’s suggestion to introduce the new fiscal rules through Protocol 12 – an annex of the treaties – thereby avoiding the need for ratification by national parliaments or referenda, and use this as a basis to secure some less-ambitious concessions? One weekend of miscalculations later, the end sum is a Europe today that consists of 26 member states aiming to pool sovereignty further while one onlooker looks to retrench. For some time now, the eurozone crisis has looked set to bring about the dividing of Europe into a core and a periphery. The UK’s efforts have consequently been directed toward ensuring that, in this eventuality, the periphery would still have real influence with the core. Now, unexpectedly alone in a periphery of one, this task has suddenly become a whole lot harder.
Sarah Raine is a non-resident fellow based in Berlin with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.