Madrid view: Cameron’s corner

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So, the speech is finally out. The best is no doubt the call for a cool-headed approach, a rational debate and the opening of negotiations with Britain’s partners. It’s just wise to first try and change the status quo and then submit the result to the public for its approval or rejection. That speaks well of British democracy and Cameron’s wish to reconcile Europe and the British public. But that’s not enough.

Cameron has cornered himself into a very difficult situation. Ideally, he would want to transform the EU into something much better of what it is today: less rigid and bureaucratic, more competitive, democratic and open to world. Should he bother to try and rally support for that vision, he could find many partners in the continent.  But he does not lay out any convincing proposal on that matter less he offers a roadmap for that process.

Having given up on improving the EU even without having tried, he goes for his second-best, ie to stay in the EU, albeit after having won some additional guarantees and exemptions from EU policies. But here numerous questions arise. 

First, is there not a contradiction in his passion for the single-market, which is basically about free and fair competition, and his wish to exempt the UK from EU labour regulations, which are a key part of every country’s competitiveness. 

The same with fisheries, is it just because British fishermen cannot compete with firms from other EU member states that he wants to repatriate fisheries policies or is there a better argument? Could other member states so pick and choose which policies to repatriate? 

And finally, why would the 26 fellow EU member states accept this? What would the UK give in return? Cameron misses one key point: before he convinces the British public of the need to stay in the EU, he needs to convince the EU that it would be worse off without the UK. And since he seems not to question that the UK would remain attached to the single market even after formally leaving the EU, the truth is that his bargaining power is not terribly great. With his speech, Cameron dangerously comes close to a “heads I lose, tails you win” situation.

 

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