April 11, 2013
Last Tuesday, the Financial Times reported that the French and German governments, acting together, had decided not to make any contribution to the work of the British Coalition government’s “Review of Competences,” a study set up as part of the Coalition agreement in 2010 to review the legislative competences of the European Union.
Some European governments have apparently been willing to make comments and suggestions to the Review. But most member states have chosen not to take part and the refusal of the French and German governments to be associated with it can only be a worrying omen for Mr. Cameron’s intended European policy over the coming years.
He will have his work cut out to win friends and influence people when he resumes his tour of European capitals, where he will be discussing his ideas for “reform” of the EU. There is very little appetite among our fellow EU partners to allow one member state to redefine its legal commitments arising from treaty responsibilities agreed by all member states.
In his speech on 22nd January, Mr Cameron sketched out a timetable for the restructuring of the terms of British membership of the European Union, leading perhaps to a referendum on these new terms in approximately 2017. The French and German rejection of any participation in the work of the “Review of Competences” strongly suggests that these two governments will be unwilling to help Mr. Cameron in any attempts he may make substantially to renegotiate the terms of British membership. The “Review of Competences” has been seen by many in the Conservative Party as laying the intellectual and political groundwork for the repatriation of powers from the European Union to the British government which the Party apparently regards as a precondition of continued British membership in the Union.
In some of their public utterances, Conservative spokespeople have suggested they expected from their German colleagues a sympathetic hearing in any process of renegotiation. This optimism seems misplaced. At a recent conference, the prominent (and on this matter representative) German speaker told us that many German officials and ministers were irritated by the review of competences. They found it unseemly and arrogant that at a time when the bulk of the Union’s member states were wrestling with the existential question of the reinvention of the Eurozone, one member state not in the Eurozone was considering which of its existing obligations under the European treaties it might wish to abandon. Even if some Germans might have some sympathy for individual issues likely to be raised by the review, the context in which these issues would be raised and the motives of those raising them would ensure at best very limited support from the German side for any proposals emanating from the review.
The review is widely seen in Germany and elsewhere as primarily a way to keep the most Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party happier than they otherwise would be and a way of bridging the gap between official Conservative policy on Europe and that of the Liberal Democrats, their partners in the Coalition.
Like the governments of the European Union, those in the United Kingdom who are enthusiastic advocates of full British participation in the European Union have sometimes found themselves in two minds about the appropriateness of making submissions to the current “Review of Competences.” Some have argued that any opportunity should be seized to expound the merits of sovereignty-sharing within the European Union, even to a probably unsympathetic audience. Others doubt whether the deliberations of the Review will make any objective difference to the course of British European policy over the coming five years. Elections, events in the Eurozone and the internal dynamics of the major British political parties will decide this issue.
The French and German governments appear to belong to the second category of analysis. For what it is worth, so do I. Pro-Europeans in this country, who wish Britain to stay in the EU, should think long and hard about whether changing the occasional adjective or sentence in the final report of this “Review of Competences” would really represent any worthwhile victory for their cause.