Did David Cameron 'save' Britain at the EU summit?
by our secret columnist in Brussels
After the latest European Union summit turned out to be yet another damp squib, our resident satirist Schadenfreude evaluates just what the British prime minister achieved in Brussels
According to what the British House of Lords Select Committee on Europe was told on January 14, the so-called "veto" on a new European Union treaty was necessary because three different sets of safeguards had been refused. The first demand was for safeguards against any change in the single market, which would disadvantage member states not - members of the Eurozone. The second set was protection against any "use of EU institutions" in formulating or applying a new treaty. In other words, no separate euro union. The third was against the possible adoption, by majority vote, of a series of new financial regulations considered damaging to London financial markets.
The first was always a chimera. Existing treaties can be changed only with the agreement of all the signatories. It is not even necessary to say expressly in the new eurozone-plus agreement that it does not and cannot damage the single market. Every first-year student on a course in European integration knows it. But to enable Britain to sleep peaceably at night, the new agreement says so. Result - saved.
Second, the head of the legal service of the European Council told the December 9 meeting last year that the institutions could legally be used in the drafting and application of the proposed new eurozone agreement. British Prime Minister David Cameron maintained that there was legal uncertainty. There was then political uncertainty. Did the United Kingdom stand by what Cameron had said? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Shortly before the new agreement was concluded - using EU Institutions – British Foreign Secretary William Hague redefined the safeguard: Britain was not going to make an issue out of it, but would make sure that nothing done by the European Court of Justice - under the agreement - damaged Britain. The first-year student already quoted might have thought that the ECJ was the best judge of its own responsibilities. Who is Hague going to appeal to if he thinks that the court is doing Britain down? Usually when you dig yourself into a hole, it is best to stop digging. Result - saved? The referee will decide.
Third - under the Lisbon Treaty, financial regulations - but not taxation regulations - are adopted by majority vote. Cameron would not have wanted a treaty change, requiring a vote in the British parliament and the possibility of a Tory backbench revolt. Result - not saved. Somebody could have suggested that there might be a way out – a gentlemen's agreement that "where very important interests are at stake discussion must be continued until unanimous agreement is reached" – written in January 1966. This is how France got the European Economic Community to work Ó la franšaise. It lasted for 40 years.