Cameron vetoes EU treaty: what does this decision mean?

The Prime Minister has taken a hard line in Europe in a political gamble that could leave Britain is

The Prime Minister has taken a hard line in Europe in a political gamble that could leave Britain isolated.

"Where we can't be given safeguards, it is better to be on the outside," said David Cameron at 6.20am today, as he announced that he has vetoed a revision of the Lisbon Treaty.

This is a huge development. It is the first time that a major treaty, striking at the heart of the EU, will go ahead without a British signature since Britain joined in 1973. It will redefine the nature of Britain's relationship with Europe, essentially creating a two-speed EU.

As I blogged on Wednesday, Cameron was in a very tight spot politically: on the one hand, his Eurosceptic backbenchers were clamouring for a referendum, while on the other his Liberal Democrat coalition partners warned against the risks of isolating Britain.

Isolation is certainly the main worry in the papers this morning. Of the 27 member states, all but four signed up to the treaty, with just Britain, Hungary, Sweden and the Czech Republic remaining on the outside. Sweden and the Czech Republic may yet join after their leaders have consulted their parliaments.

The risk here is that Britain will not only lose influence in the UK, but that its position in the single market will be jeopardised. Defending his decision at that early morning press conference (which was held after more than 10 hours of negotiations that ran through the night), Cameron said:

Of course we want the eurozone countries to come together and to solve their problems. But we should only allow that to happen inside the European Union treaties if there are proper protections for the single market and for other key British interests. Without those safeguards it is better not to have a treaty within a treaty but to have those countries make their arrangements separately.

He insisted that he would work to ensure that any agreement works for all 27 member states, not just the 23 signed up to it.

So, Cameron will not be forced to go to Parliament with a contentious treaty, nearly 20 years after John Major's trials with Maastricht. But does this decision ease his political headache?

In short, not really. The decision has won grudging support ("Credit where it's due -- Cameron has shown backbone," said Roger Helmer MEP), but it is by no means certain that calls for a referendum will end. Eurosceptics could feasibly still argue that the new treaty marks a major change in the power structures of EU and that the British public should be consulted.

It is unclear how much Nick Clegg knew about Cameron's hardline stance on this, but the Prime Minister's calculation will be that the Lib Dems will not walk out of coalition over this issue.

The other risk here is that "Britain's interests" will not necessarily be safeguarded. Cameron made defence of the City of London his price, demanding that any transfer of power from a national regulator to an EU regulator on financial services be subject to a veto. The cost was too high, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who has been pushing for a two-speed Europe) explained:

David Cameron requested something which we all considered was unacceptable. We couldn't have a waiver for the UK and in my view it would have undermined a lot of what we have done to regulate the financial sector.

Financial services regulation will press ahead without Britain, then. However, the Guardian points out that these regulations are decided by qualified majority voting, in which Britain does not have a veto. It can currently form a "blocking minority" to prevent legislation from going through, but if more countries join the euro this will shrink.

Cameron has taken a huge political gamble, hoping to channel Margaret Thatcher and her intransigence in Europe, rather than John Major and his struggles over the Maastricht Treaty. It has yet to be seen whether it will pay off. The first priority must be the resolution of the eurozone crisis, which Cameron himself said is "our biggest national interest". The next stage of talks will focus on saving the euro -- without Britain's input.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump