Friday, 25 January 2013

EUROPE:'' BRIXIT'': Britain is sleepwalking toward EU departure

In calling for a British referendum on EU membership, Prime Minister Cameron thought he might get some support from reform-minded partners on the Continent. But the praise has been almost non-existent, and Cameron is feeling the heat.

Indeed, Cameron's anouncement on Wednesday that his government would hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the 27-nation bloc before the end of 2017 put the island's euroskeptics in an ecstatic mood. They have already coined the word for it "Brixit," the name given to a possible British exit from the EU. But Pro-European voices have warned that Britain is sleepwalking toward a departure from the union.

With the announcement, Cameron has achieved his first goal. His fractured Conservative Party looked more united than ever on Wednesday. But Cameron also chalked up a second success on the domestic political scene because the issue of Britian's EU membership is driving a wedge into the Labour Party. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister with the Liberal Democrats, portrays the referendum prospect as a dangerous distraction from genuinely important issues.

Still, the satisfaction Cameron enjoys from these domestic gains probably won't last long. The EU problem will catch up with him again soon -- in other words, when it becomes obvious that the demands he has made on Brussels have fallen on deaf ears.

Cameron was already defending himself in an international forum on Thursday. Speaking at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Cameron warned European leaders against forcing member countries into ever-deeper political union. "Countries in Europe have their histories, their traditions, their institutions, want their own sovereignty, their ability to make their own choices," Cameron said. "And to try and shoehorn countries into a centralized political union would be a great mistake for Europe, and Britain wouldn't be part of it."

The British seem to have a taste for referendums at the moment. This year, the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands will vote on their status as a British overseas territory. Then, in 2014, the Scottish government will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Now it looks like there could be another nationwide referendum after that -- on Britain's membership of the European Union.

The current coalition government laid the groundwork for a referendum when it took office. Last year, to appease Conservative euroskeptics, it introduced the so-called Sovereignty Act that stipulates that Britain must hold a referendum if it transfers additional powers to Brussels.

In any case, Cameron has a two-stage plan: First he wants to negotiate a "better deal" that will give Britain further exceptions to EU regulations. Then he wants his people to vote on whether they want to remain in the EU under these new terms.

Cameron is betting that his EU partners will find a way to grant him concessions out of their desire to make sure that Britain remains part of the EU. And he's hoping that support for such exceptions will come from other reform-minded members of the bloc, such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

However, initial reactions from these countries' governments were not particularly promising. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was "of course prepared to talk about British wishes".

Other leaders perceived to be warmer toward reform proposals also gave a cool response to his speech. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he didn't want to interfere with a domestic political issue in Britain, but followed up a day later in Davos saying he backed some of Cameron's statements.

Meanwhile, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said that the United Kingdom and Denmark, which is also not a member of the euro zone, "have chosen to follow two different paths" and that Danish interest "are best served by staying as close to the EU core as possible."

Finally, Swedish Prime Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that: "Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess."

There are no signs, either, that this opposition will abate anytime soon. Sooner or later, the British are likely to voice increasing doubt about Cameron's strategy. Cameron said that he would hold the referendum "in the first half" of the next parliamentary term if his party wins the next general election, scheduled for 2015. But two years is still a long way off. And if the Tories can't show that they've secured any concessions by then, Cameron is likely to face ire anew from the euroskeptic ranks of his party in parliament.

There is also the possibility that Cameron won't be in charge anymore following the 2015 election. Indeed, merely holding out the prospect of a referendum on EU membership won't be enough to drive masses of voters into his party's arms.
 
EU leaders's cool response is really nothing more than a noncommittal and polite formality aimed at preventing any escalation of tensions between EU and British officials. After all, locking horns with Cameron now would be a bad idea since they need his signature in early February, when EU leaders meet for a summit to approve the bloc's budget for the next seven years.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist