The UK looks pretty isolated in Europe today, with David Cameron having carried out his threat to veto a revision of the Lisbon treaty. The move means a two-speed Europe is now a reality, with a Franco-German core group pushing ahead with the economic reforms that Britain, along with Sweden, Hungary and the Czech Republic, fear go too far towards total economic integration.
Some see Cameron’s move as a positive thing, arguing that he has fought off attempts to impose a series of measures on Britain that would be bad for the country. But others argue that he has thrown the baby out with the bath water, isolating Britain purely because of his desire to protect the City of London from a tightening of EU fiscal regulations. The truth is probably somewhere inbetween, and will take time to become clear.
Where this leaves Britain with regards to Europe now is unclear. But the country’s decades-long refusal to truly talk about the EU looks like coming to an end. Arguably, Britain needs to discuss EU membership in an adult way, probably with a referendum at the end of the debate. As recent events have shown, the perils of semi-integration and semi-membership are great and have arguably put the future of the entire EU in danger.
For the EU, this is a new dawn. 2012 will inevitably bring recession, but how deep and how long that recession will be depends on the willingness of the new caucus within the community to flex its muscles. Britain is now very much on the sidelines, but is this a permanent marginalisation or the start of a process of much greater disengagement from Europe in general?
David Cameron probably looks stronger in the eyes of eurosceptics within his party this morning. But the real test of his decision will unfold over the next year or so, as we see how Britain’s economy develops. It’s hard to say what will happen, and Cameron could be shown – eventually – to have made a strong move; such an outcome is not impossible. But in the long run, Britain could be further isolated economically and politically, and Cameron could be shown to have dismantled the delicate balance of in-and-out that has characterised Britain’s relationship to the EU for so many years.