Prime minister Cameron's long-awaited speech this Friday in the Netherlands may well mark a turning point in Britain's position within the European Union. Any attempt by the UK government to repatriate powers to Westminster is likely to be a drawn out and cumbersome negotiation. As previous experience has shown, internal discussions on constitutional competences - navel gazing - often distract attention from the far more pressing issue of the jobs and growth agenda.
By attempting to revisit major parts of the European Union's established acquis and picking and choosing the bits the UK approves of is a dangerous precedent - it could lead to piece-meal legislation, disintegration and potentially the break-up of the EU. However attractive repatriation may seem on the surface it would involve long and complex procedures with no guaranteed favourable outcomes. Ultimately, attempts to repatriate competences and eventual exit from the EU are decisions of the British government and the British people. However, it is my strong belief that full UK membership is in the British and European interest. The single market benefits the British economy hugely and the EU remains by far the biggest destination for UK trade accounting for almost 50% of total exports.
In a globalised world, it is not in the UK's interest to seek to downgrade to some kind of 'second class' membership and so choose to weaken its own influence on European and global affairs.
In recent days, the US administration has rightly warned that a possible referendum risks the UK "turning inwards", while Ireland's prime minister has sounded the alarm bell saying that a British exit from the EU would be a "disaster." Leading British business figures have cautioned PM Cameron that he risks destabilising the UK economy and inadvertently taking Britain out of the EU, if he tries to seek a wholesale renegotiation of EU membership. Their voices, however late in the day, should be heeded.
The eurozone is integrating more deeply and more rapidly out of necessity. The UK has chosen to remain outside the euro with a clear opt out. The UK's support for deeper integration of the eurozone is welcome, but doing so from outside means that the eurozone cannot and will not be shaped according to British interest.
The UK is not in a position to block the other member states from deeper integration nor does it necessarily want to; the political will of most other EU member states is to move forward. The negotiations on the Fiscal Compact demonstrated the difficulties of attempting to exercise the so-called national 'veto.'
The UK has shaped EU policy
The UK has played a leading role forming many key EU policies including on the single market, overseas development aid, trade and climate change. UK leadership in these areas has been highly appreciated and would be sorely missed should the British decide to exit.
In the specific field of justice and home affairs, the UK has so far played a major role in shaping EU policies. In less than two years from now, these policies become fully-fledged EU policies, meaning that any member state failing to apply them properly can be brought to court.
Surely it cannot be expected that the EU institutions and the other 26 member states will stand idly by whilst the UK moves increasingly closer to opting out of more than 130 of those measures - in essence re-erecting national borders in the fight against cross-border crime - and then seek special agreement to rejoin a select few which are considered to be in the 'national interest.'
The European Union is much more than a set of rules governing the internal market and the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. It is a unique and historic project that has unified the European continent. Nation states voluntarily have chosen to come together to pool sovereignty because they believe that together they are stronger. I believe the UK's role to lead this project in the British and European interest.
Attempting to repatriate competences from the EU may well play well in parts of the notoriously eurosceptic media and in parts of the Conservative Party but I would question whether it is truly in the British and European long-term interest.
I suspect however that David Cameron is playing a dangerous game for purely tactical, domestic reasons. I personally do believe him when he says that he wants the UK to remain a member of the EU. But he increasingly resembles Goethe's poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice who cannot get rid of the spirits that he summoned - the spirits who want to leave the EU for ideological reasons to the detriment of the British people.
The 1 January 2013 marked 40 years of British membership of the EU. The European Union is likely to become even more significant in the next 40 years and this why the UK should remain fully committed to shaping the EU of the future.
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