David Cameron Stands on the Wrong Side of History

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently proclaimed to the world that his government is no longer content with the United Kingdom’s place in the current European Union.

In a speech given at the Bloomberg headquarters in London on January 23, Cameron declared that the present manifestation of the EU has fallen short of its fundamental agenda of securing the prosperity of its member nations. With Europe markedly lagging behind the rising developing world economic powers in the “new race for wealth and jobs of the future”, he highlighted three challenges confronting the commonwealth today.

First, he pointed to a lack of proper governance and structures to ensure the long-term success of the Euro, as well as safeguards to ensure open access to the European market for nations outside of the Eurozone.

Secondly, he attributed Europe’s falling share of total world output directly to archaic, stifling restrictions on intercontinental labour mobility and over-regulation of domestic businesses.

Finally, he remarked on increasing public cynicism towards the fact that the EU is acting in the best interests of the people, as manifested in mass demonstrations across the continent at the imposition of austerity measures and increased taxes in order to bail out struggling foreign governments.

To combat these issues, Cameron proposed a multi-faceted reorientation of the EU`s focus towards market liberalization and bolstering of the mandates of individual nation states, with the goal of improving the reformed commonwealth’s global competitiveness with the formation of free trade agreements with the US, Japan, and India. The effectiveness of EU regulation in areas such as the environment, education, and transportation would be re-evaluated, and unnecessary or inefficient bureaucratic functions would be done away with or relegated back to the agency of individual member nations. National parliaments would play a greater role in ensuring democratic accountability in the EU’s practices. The system as a whole would aspire to maintain flexibility, integrity, and fairness. Doing so would allow countries the option of choosing between increased economic integration and national autonomy, and that new arrangements would benefit members both in and outside of the Eurozone equally.

Cameron went on to announce that the next Conservative party manifesto in 2015 will pose an “in-out” referendum to the British people, and the public will get to decide whether the UK secedes from the EU or remains to facilitate the aforementioned reforms.

While his rhetoric of increased international competitiveness and democratic accountability is appealing, Cameron’s proposed changes to the European Union come at too steep a price. Dani Rodrik, a professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, explains in an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that state-centric approaches to international economic integration compel national governments to sacrifice political flexibility for the sake of fiscal growth and stability. In the absence of centralized authority over the collective market to ameliorate international competition for foreign trade and investment, individual states must adopt stringent policies that lean towards reduced taxation and increased corporate deregulation and privatization. This narrowing of political parameters inevitably proves detrimental to social welfare programmes and developmental initiatives, which take a back seat to the pressing need to maximize market confidence. Cameron’s speech alluded to such a reprioritization under his intended reforms. He derided the bureaucratic inefficiency of the EU’s “expensive peripheral” institutions, such as councils pertaining to the environment and education, and called for their elimination for the sake of establishing a “relentless focus” on competition. This was presented as a necessary step towards realignment of the actions of the Union with its original mandate of fostering the prosperous and harmonized growth of its constituents. However, such a neoliberal stance is indicative of a flawed understanding of the prerequisites of prosperity. A system that skimps on academic development for the sake of economic progress will prove detrimental to the competitiveness of future generations of skilled workers, while neglect of effective environmental stewardship may result in the eradication of the future of the human race altogether.

Cameron`s vision of reform also ignores the fact that centralization and collectivization of governmental authority is necessary for the maintenance of the European Union. Despite identifying the EU’s handling of the sovereign debt crisis as problematic, his prescriptions are conspicuously absent of any mention of contingency plans to address future periods of continental financial turmoil. His proposal to permit EU countries to choose national autonomy over economic integration would effectively allow the UK to enjoy all the benefits of membership in a continental federation without having to shoulder any of the accompanying responsibilities. This demonstrates either ignorance or blatant disregard of the reality that the occasional implementation of policies that sacrifice individual self-interest for the good of the collective is necessarily co-requisite to the elimination of transborder trade restrictions under a single European market.

Given these glaring shortcomings, it is highly unlikely that the above policy suggestions will have been endorsed by the constituents of the European Union by the onset of the 2015 referendum. In such a scenario, Cameron may feel compelled to follow through with his stated ultimatum and facilitate the secession of the United Kingdom from the continental commonwealth. For a nation that has historically played an important role in the formation of organizations such as the EU, the United Nations, and NATO, this would represent a significant step in the wrong direction.

William Zhang

About William Zhang

William was a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. He completed his HBA at the University of Toronto in International Relations and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His interests lie in post-conflict peacebuilding, NATO security policy, and socio-political development in the Asia-Pacific region. He is an associate editor at the University of Toronto’s Undergraduate Journal of Political Science. Email: williamzhang23@gmail.com