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Cameron’s Speech, European Reaction

January 25, 2013

British PM David Cameron has made headlines across the EU and the world after a speech Wednesday (Jan. 23) that could change the future of both the UK and the EU. Cameron’s speech on the UK’s relationship to the EU, in which he promised a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU for the British people in 2017 if his government is reelected, has given most everyone in Europe the occasion to comment on the UK’s involvement in EU politics. Few gave positive responses.

In a conveniently-timed meeting of the World Economic Forum on Thursday (Jan. 24), German Chancellor Angela Merkel was careful with her remarks, making clear her desire for the UK to remain in the EU and commenting that the UK is not the only state to refrain from adopting the euro. She also stated, however, “We are not a closed shop, we stay open to all who want to join. And we still hope that many countries will still want to join the euro.”

Representatives from other countries have seen Cameron’s speech as an opportunity. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski characterized Cameron’s speech as an indication that the UK is slipping from its position as a “natural member of the triumvirate capable of ruling the EU” to “the category of a country of special concern, which should be treated with care in case it does something unwise, harms itself and leaves the Union. It means the group which holds power in the Union will have a different shape,” allowing Poland a chance to figure into this new core. From an economic standpoint, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sees the speech as putting the UK in an unstable environment for investment, stating “If the UK decides to leave the EU, we will roll out the red carpet to businessmen [who want to leave the UK].”

Reactions within the UK haven’t been much more positive. Cameron finds himself between two parties, the Labor Party on the left and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on the right, who pose threats to his reelection in 2015. Labor party leader Ed Miliband has said Cameron’s promise of a poll was evidence he was “frightened” about the general elections and had “given in” to his party. On the part of UKIP, party leader Nigel Farage has characterized Cameron’s speech as an attempt to “get UKIP off his back.” This marginal euro-skeptic party threatens to siphon off votes for Cameron’s government in the 2015 elections.

It generally looks as though a pre-election promise meant mainly for the UK could reverberate throughout the EU. Martin Schulz, speaker of the European Parliament has said, “I have an impression that this speech was directed more at Tories than towards the European Union. A prime minister who says ‘I will hold a referendum, but only after the next elections’, is eyeing the next elections and not the referendum. I find what Mr. Cameron is doing very implausible.” Implausible though it may be, the extent of international reaction is evidence that the suggestion of the UK retracting its EU membership has struck a chord with many throughout Europe. In the end, though, it looks very much like the UK needs the EU more than the EU needs the UK. On Tuesday (Jan. 22) Germany and France celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty which united the countries in the very beginnings of the union that would grow into the EU. Clearly, the UK does not have an infinite supply of influence in an ever more powerful European Union.

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