Asked at June’s Summit whether he would like to join in the Greek bail-out, David Cameron politely declined. The UK would not be contributing to the rescue of the Eurozone.
More surprisingly, other governments did not seriously press the matter. David Cameron’s disengagement from the EU – of which this was just the latest example – is viewed as equivalent to the constructive engagement demanded of everyone else.
If the British premier is keeping his country on the sidelines, his fellow leaders reason, it is to prevent the UK unleashing its destructive urges on the EU. They should support this effort rather than stretching their luck.
Far from punishing Britain for its detachment, other governments therefore reward it. They know that this kind of disengagement comes at a cost to the UK and its capacity to influence EU affairs. They are prepared to compensate Cameron by taking allowance of his priorities on issues like financial regulation as if Britain were a fully paid up member of the EU.
It is odd that the UK is being given this special treatment. After all, by current standards the UK is no longer particularly exceptional. Almost every other country in the EU harbours the kind of destructive eurosceptic forces found in Britain. Yet no other government is rewarded for keeping these forces under control.
It must therefore be the UK’s back-history, rather than current political realities, which explains its odd-man-out status. The pungent legacy of past British governments has not been forgotten, and Europe’s leaders recall just how low their expectations of Cameron were before he took office. Cameron is being rewarded for not being as awful as expected.
But is it wise to give Britain a special status based on its past misdemeanours? Measured against the European policy of previous governments, Britain’s current disengagement cannot help but look like a rare example of self-discipline and selflessness. Viewed from the perspective of his broader political agenda however, Cameron’s behaviour in Europe looks altogether less constructive.
This, after all, is a government whose overriding aim is the creation of a “Big Society” – the prime minister spends most of his time lecturing the British people about the need for active membership in their community. Funny then that at the European level the premier is displaying a distinctly anti-social disengagement from the Community.
An increasingly British EU, opposed by Britain
It is not far fetched to draw this parallel. If Cameron advocates social engagement in his domestic affairs it is because he views it as an antidote to his pet hate – top-down meddling. His political philosophy embraces traditional British principles such as the primacy of convention over bureaucracy, and reactive adaptation by government as opposed to abstract and radical new laws. It is noteworthy that he does not apply this philosophy to his European policy.
Since 2007, when the first of many political plagues was unleashed on Europe, the other member governments have nudged aside the European Commission and its unfortunate tendency for bureaucratic meddling. They have laid emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of EU law. And they have stressed the importance of slow and steady constitutional adaptation as opposed to radical big-bang solutions. In other words, they have taken up many of the traits espoused by Cameron in his domestic policy.
Yet it is the Cameron government which has looked most ill at ease in this new-look EU. It is not just that Britain has detached itself from various positions of influence. London is stressing the need for a referendum in the case even of minor constitutional change. And it is exhorting the rest of the bloc to pursue top-down economic integration. In his European policy, Cameron is promoting many of the political principles he most dislikes.
European governments are accustomed to British euroscepticism of the shouty, foam-flecked variety. But the current government’s European policy is hardly more constructive. It is turning the EU into just the sort of place the British dislike – rigid, unresponsive to the British people and prone to radical top-down settlements. As a means of making the UK’s relationship with the EU unsustainable though, it’s rather good.