By Joanna Impey
(EurActiv) — Over the past few days, the anti-European rhetoric coming from the British government has been increasing. But what effect does such talk have on Britain’s standing in the EU?
Under mounting pressure from the right of his party, British Prime Minister David Cameron has given his strongest hints yet that he’s planning to call a referendum on the UK’s ties with the European Union. British eurosceptics are hoping this will be an opportunity to claw back powers from Brussels – and to avoid getting further entangled in costly solutions to the eurozone crisis.
At the Conservative Party conference earlier this week, Cameron also threatened to disrupt EU budget talks unless other member states could agree to “proper control” of spending. Speaking to the BBC, Cameron said the budget was a “classic example” of where the UK should “probably start to draw new lines.”
‘Sense of annoyance’
But with another European summit due at the end of next week, is there a danger that such talk could rankle with fellow member states?
“There is a feeling that basically the UK is dispensing itself from what especially the eurozone is doing, and pushing for far more integration in the eurozone – as long as it doesn’t touch the UK. So basically there might be a sense of annoyance coming from the French side,” said Vivien Pertusot, Head of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Brussels.
He added that relations between the UK government and Francois Hollande’s administration had so far been “cordial.”
Marco Incerti from the influential think-tank, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), thinks that Cameron’s latest comments will come as little surprise to many in Brussels.
“It’s not all of a sudden that people in Brussels are panicking – the concern has been there for quite some time. There’s been a steady increase in parallel with the perceived growing distances between London and Brussels, and certainly in the last five years, if not more, there are more people here who have become frustrated by the relationship,” he said.
Harsher tone for ‘domestic consumption’
However, James Elles, a long-standing British Conservative Member of the European Parliament (MEP) pointed to the fact that Cameron’s comments were made in the specific context of the Conservative Party conference – where a significant proportion of delegates are hostile to the EU.
“I think people understand that if there’s a harsher tone that’s certainly to be for domestic consumption,” Elles said.
But some are warning that Britain may be arguing itself out of a position at the table when it comes to future discussions in Europe.
“If you talk to British people in Brussels, they’re very much alert to what’s going on and they’re alarmed,” said Pertusot.
UK remains influential in Brussels
Incerti doesn’t think that the anti-European sentiment coming from the UK government affects the country’s wider influence in Brussels.
“You have this perception in the UK about Brussels dictating rules for Westminster and for the United Kingdom as if they came out of nowhere,” Incerti said, “whereas in fact the United Kingdom through its officials remains quite influential here in Brussels.”
He added that the UK is an “unavoidable player” when it comes to matters relating to the finance industry as a result of the city of London’s status as Europe’s foremost financial hub.
As far as the prospect of a referendum is concerned, Incerti said that many in Brussels would welcome the idea, given that it would make matters much clearer.
“It is time for the United Kingdom to make up its mind – either you want to be in this and you’re fully committed, which means also eventually being prepared to take certain steps forward, or you don’t want to be in, and that’s fair enough, but then let’s decide once and for all,” he said.
The UK’s position will be put to the test next week when EU leaders meet in Brussels for a summit on October 18-19, at which proposals for a banking union are expected to top the agenda.
Last December, the prime minister said he was using Britain’s veto to opt out of an EU-wide fiscal pact designed to help the eurozone – an unexpected move that was seen as a watershed in Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. The deal went through anyway, without UK involvement.
Joanna Impey, journalist at Deutsche Welle and a Robert Bosch Foundation-EurActiv Journalism Fellow