Why is Cameron's Europe speech so significant?

David Cameron delivers a speech on "the future of the European Union and Britain"s role within it".

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David Cameron's explicit rejection of the idea of "ever closer union" with the words, "for Britain - and perhaps for others - it is not the objective," may prove to be the most historically significant part in his long awaited Europe speech.

Why? When the UK has so often been the European Union's one nation "awkward squad". Doesn't the series of opt outs it has negotiated make this position quite obvious?

It is true that the UK opted out of the 1985 Schengen agreement on borders, of committing to join the Euro, and made sure it would have to opt "in" to a raft of new police and justice powers. There are other countries that have also negotiated opt-outs here and there - so why is today's language significant?

The importance of rejecting ever closer union lies in stating something explicitly that mainstream politics in Europe has been side-stepping for decades. There are many supporters of the European project who imply that unless the whole structure of treaties, summits, and memoranda carries on moving inexorably on, it will wither and die. Could the Conservative leader be the first mainstream European politician to make the case that it doesn't have to be that way?

It is clear there are sections of the European public who share the nervousness of Mr Cameron's grassroots Tories about ever closer integration. In both France and the Netherlands, the public rejected the European constitution in popular votes nearly eight years ago. Sweden voted against joining the Euro, and Denmark also has an opt-out on the single currency.

While public opinion has sometimes coalesced, euro-sceptically, around particular issues in these countries, what has been lacking is a broad philosophical acceptance that integration may have gone far enough or, indeed, as Mr Cameron has argued, need to be reversed in some areas. Indeed where such arguments have been made on the continent, it tends to be by parties on the extremes of Left and Right.

In France or Germany, these types of argument touch deep insecurities about the war and the need to buttress peace by "ever closer union". The real challenge to this philosophy in those two countries comes from the extreme Right. So the idea of setting out an alternative is tainted in the eyes of many Germans or French with an ugly whiff of neo-fascism.

Does the passage of time or the intensity of the economic crisis mean that the old post-war arguments for further integration might be lessening, and that other countries might see a "UKIP effect" in which the heresies, once confined to the fringe, may become newly and respectably mainstream?

Mario Monti, facing a Eurosceptic Silvio Berlusconi in Italian elections, has warned the EU that unless it makes more concessions on the bailout package, "Italy - which has always been a pro-European country - could flee into the hands of populists."

It is an odd thing when a man running for office warns against "populism"; as Mr Monti has a few times in recent months, alluding to anti-EU trends across the continent. And his attitude, as a former EU commissioner and advocate of "ever closer union," highlights that centrist candidates could find themselves in trouble at the polls in some countries if they paint euro-sceptics as extremists.

In the Netherlands too there have been some interesting recent currents, with the centre right party expressing greater reservations about European integration, expropriating some of the language once confined to the extremes. This provides a clue as to why Mr Cameron originally hoped to give his speech in Amsterdam.

Downing Street clearly hopes that someone, anyone, will make common cause with the British prime minister in his argument that European treaty revisions, that may be required to buttress the eurozone, offer an opportunity to re-visit some of the concessions of powers to Brussels. The Netherlands and Sweden, their two main hopes, are not quite ready to do so.

However it will only require a couple of significant European players to align with Mr Cameron for the awkwardness of isolation to lessen and for his platform to be taken more seriously in Europe.

On the assumption that the process he described today does not lead to a UK exit from the EU - for this would require a great many things to go wrong for him - it is the announcement of an explicit policy or set of ideas to counter the idea of "ever closer union" that may prove to be this speech's most important legacy.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    He was headboy, but he is still very dim, they gave a thug at my school a prefects job, it gave him a purpose to bully with the backing of the school but not in an open manner.. see the lickness with the Tory party?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Was Cameron head boy?

    He speaks as if he is speaking to his school.
    I'll give him marks out of ten.

    Nul points.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    It's crazy to think that it is possible for us to end up with UK leaving the EU and Scotland breaking away from the UK.

    I hate to think what that will do for England's economic and social health with a divided Kingdom, no voice at the table of the world's largest economic trading area, a withered relationship with the world's biggest economic country and possibly many more years of austerity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    And just when you think it can't get any worse. Tony BLiar slithers out from under a rock.
    Got a whiff of Emperor of Europe again Tone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hearing one side of a conversation;

    "Re-elect me and I promise you a referendum!"

    "When? Before the end of 2017!"

    "Well, yes, but it will be here before you know it!"

    "What happened to the last promise of a referendum? I was hoping that we could draw a line under that. Lessons have been learned. It's time to move on."

    "We're all in this together!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Looks like our generational struggle against global terrorism has been put on the back burner for today...

    I can see why so many people just go to the pub and watch the footy

    This EU vote will be in 5 years or so folks


    ...or maybe it won't

    So who's playing tonight?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    One of the most important points made by DC was that before any referendum we need to know what is it that we are to stay in or leave? Good question & one which I think the other EU countries need to consider: to what end point is 'ever closer union' aimed at? To get to the point: in the minds of the Commission is it a proces for achieving a United States of Europe-a single entity akin to the USA?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.


    He ate a pasty- a large one if he remembers rightly on a station in Leeds and jolly nice it was too - except he didn't because the outlet closed 2 years before he made that claim. Is there a pattern emerging here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Apart from being Conservative Party leader, what has Cameron actually done?

    Really done?

    Who is he?

    Why do people blindly follow him?
    Perhaps we should ask Clegg. OK, when he has pulled his head out, then we should ask him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    We dont need Europe we have an Empire to trade with... oh hang on asks call me Dave.. have we still got it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It's an important point, so many politicians on the continent for so long have seemingly believed that closer integration is the EU's only way forward - but it means that what started off as a free trade agreement has mutated into a rigid, bureaucratic bloc. A flexible, adaptable union benefits everyone - countries keep their sovereignty and still enjoy the benefits of the world's largest economy

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    This is nothing more than diversion tactics, the economy is in dire straights, The Tories know they are toast in 2015!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I wonder what the options will be in a referendum, if it does take place. I was quite disappointed by the Alternative Vote Referendum. It makes me suspect we'll be offered a Yes/No Referendum "Should the UK seek greater integration with the rest of Europe?" We'll get a great 'No' vote and again everybody will believe that democracy was done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I don't think Cameron said he was against closer political union. What I think he said was that closer political union may be suitable for some, particularly the Eurozone members, but not for the UK.
    In other words flexibility should be one of the guiding principles.
    I'm sure he has the overwhelming support of the British public on that point.


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