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Facing down the possibility of future British opt-outs?

Commentary, 6 November 2009
International Institutions, Europe
David Cameron's European policy speech still leaves questions over the kind of partner a Conservative Britain could be in post-Lisbon Europe.

David Cameron's European policy speech still leaves questions over the kind of partner a Conservative Britain could be in post-Lisbon Europe.

By Alastair Cameron, Head of European Security, for RUSI.org

European Security

David Cameron, Conservative party leader, has laid to rest some of the more immediate concerns over of the future engagement of his party on Europe. However, questions remain concerning the type of partner he will prove himself to be in Europe, should he become the next Prime Minister.

The traditional Conservative opposition to the EU is well-known in other European capitals. Lately however, a growing unease has been felt across Europe as to how far this opposition would be pursued should the Tories come to power after the next General Election.

At the very heart of this concern is the Conservative party's declared ambition - now an election manifesto commitment - to claw back elements of British sovereignty which are seen as having been frittered away by successive UK governments  in repeated EU treaties.

Staying on-message

Keeping the Tory party 'on-message' regarding Europe became essential in the aftermath of September's Conservative party conference, where debate over the Lisbon Treaty revealed the extent to which the rift over Europe continues to divide members of the Tory party.  However, Czech President Vaclav Klaus' final signature to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty on Tuesday 3 November 2009, the sole outstanding obstacle to its coming into effect, made this internal dilemma all the more acute

Accused by Labour politicians and some of his own backbenchers of breaking a so-called 'cast-iron guarantee' on holding a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, David Cameron was forced into making a speech on Wednesday clarifying the Conservative party's European position ahead of the next election.

Through a relatively measured and constructively articulated speech, the Conservative leader avoided calls for a referendum at any cost, and instead made the election pledge to amend the European Communities Act 1972 in order to enforce a 'Referendum lock' on the ratification of any future European treaty. David Cameron also committed to the passing of a UK Sovereignty Bill to uphold Britain's unwritten constitution in the face of European legislation, as well as three specific opt-outs which his government would seek to re-negotiate if in government. These, we were told by David Cameron, concentrate on securing or confirming UK opt-outs from the field of social and employment legislation, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the criminal justice sector.

Limited adjustments

Compared to some of the party's long-stated concerns over the EU's federalist agenda or fears over the loss of Parliament's legislative powers to an undemocratic Union, such relatively limited adjustments will have comforted some within Europe that a widely anticipated 'bust-up' over Europe was not on the cards, if at least for now. Indeed, all of these amendments would only affect the United Kingdom, and do not put in doubt any of Europe's fundamental acquis. It is all the more surprising therefore that the French Minister for Europe, Mr Pierre Lellouche, who would otherwise be responsible for cooperating with a potential Tory government on European matters, should lambast David Cameron's approach or make such a stringent attack on the Conservative view by calling the policy 'pathetic' and reflective of a somewhat 'autistic' approach to power-sharing within the EU.

More than anything else, David Cameron's speech reveals the extent to which the Tory leadership faces pressure not to be seen as dithering on Europe and instead to articulate a firm, yet realistic, commitment to repatriate powers from Brussels. The received wisdom is that anything further than this may have mitigated against a Conservative government's chances of building sufficient coalitions in Europe, and failed to recognise that consensus building and compromise are always required in order to get one's way in the EU.

This is by no means certain. Looking to the associations already made, and defended by, the Conservative party within the European Parliament, their de facto separation from most of Europe's centre-right ruling parties already shows a strong confidence in pursuing their own distinct political choices. Far from being castrated in Europe, as Mr Lellouche imaginatively puts it, a future Conservative government is unlikely to operate through obstructive absenteeism from European decision making, but instead challenge Europe by playing the system.

Lest one forget,  such obstructionism was rather practiced by France when it adopted the famous 'empty chair policy' under French President Charles De Gaulle, and suspended all French officials' attendance at EU Council meetings between June 1965 and January 1966. This then famously led to the 'Luxembourg Compromise' establishing the requirement for a unanimous vote and an effective national veto on all major issues.

The sentiment being felt across Europe is in essence one of deep frustration with seeing the UK - so crucial in any other way to developing the European project - dragging its proverbial feet when this is precisely the sort of navel-gazing exercise which the Lisbon Treaty hopes to settle once and for all. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to be tempted to belittle the Conservatives' determination to affect change in the European Union. Conservative Euroscepticism does not only represent the fringes of the party, and believing that this represents the views of an out-of touch shadow opposition would further run the risk of significantly underestimating the extent of mainstream disagreement there is in the United Kingdom towards much of the institutional structure of the European Union.

Bolder steps ahead ?

If really pushed, Conservatives in power would likely 'not let matters rest there', and instead, European governments may wish to consider how they would face down the possibility of the UK taking even bolder steps in future foreign policy.

British perspectives on European security in particular will become the subject of increased scrutiny in the run-up to the next General Election and beyond. Whether it be trying to convince European NATO allies to commit equally to Alliance operations, forcing NATO and EU machineries in Brussels into working more effectively, or living with the CFSP effects of the Lisbon Treaty, the next government will likely challenge the rest of Europe into answering some tough questions regarding the level of their own commitment. Certain European states should begin to consider what reflection they may be faced with, if their very limited collective efforts were put in front of a mirror, as the image might not necessarily be so pretty.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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