Many agree that the EU has become over-regulated and is not sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs. In fact, the European Commission started its own internal review years ago of outmoded legislation that could be scrapped.
Change in such a complex organisation requires patience and a willingness to compromise, however. Paradoxically, at a time when Britain is ruled by a coalition, more and more Conservatives, and many British citizens, are no longer prepared to put up with that. They want change on their terms – even to the extent of scrapping the common trade policy.
The Prime Minister has finally given in to growing pressures from within his party and promised a referendum on EU membership. This would come after some form of renegotiation. But most eurozone members wish to avoid any treaty revision requiring national referendums. Why should they complicate their task further by making reform dependent on renegotiating the entire EU treaty to please the leader of a deeply divided party in one member state?
If he does win the next general election, Cameron will therefore have to resort to his second option, the face-saving exercise already used by Harold Wilson in 1974-5: demanding bilateral negotiations over adjusting the conditions of membership. Britain’s partners might conceivably make a few concessions. Subsequently, Cameron could possibly frighten enough citizens into voting Yes when faced with the unattractive alternative of isolation and global irrelevance.
In this scenario, Britain will gain very little. It will also lose more of its remaining limited influence with well-meaning member-states with which it shares many policy preferences. This in turn will make sure that the EU will look even less ‘British’ than it does now. Importantly for Cameron, moreover, his party may split regardless, as Labour did in 1979-81.
• Wolfram Kaiser is professor of European Studies at the University of Portsmouth