Leader: The Prime Minister’s posturing on Europe threatens our future

There is no evidence that any EU member is willing to allow Britain to pick and choose which laws it obeys.

David Cameron gives a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

“England is, indeed, insular and maritime, linked by her trade, her markets and her food supplies to diverse and often far-flung countries . . . How then could England, as she lives, as she produces, as she trades, be incorporated into the Common Market as it was conceived and as it works?” – Charles de Gaulle

It was in the belief that the United Kingdom could never be a good European that Charles de Gaulle vetoed its application for membership of the European Economic Community in 1963. Since it belatedly joined the EEC in January 1973, the UK has often appeared determined to fulfil his prophecy. Unlike France and Germany, the country has never subscribed to the principle of “ever closer union” and has sought to limit integration at every turn.

Yet, for decades, whatever their reservations, Conservative and Labour prime ministers alike have argued that Britain’s national interest lies in sustained engagement with the European project. It was Margaret Thatcher, now lionised by Eurosceptics, who signed the integrationist Single European Act in 1987 and declared in her speech in Bruges the following year, “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.” As the Conservative former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd observed in last week’s New Statesman, “It has been an unspoken principle of British foreign policy since the days of Castlereagh that we should be present whenever Europeans discuss matters that could affect vital British interests.”

This tradition of patient, pragmatic engagement is now threatened by David Cameron’s crude unilateralism. The Prime Minister did not want his premiership to be defined by Europe. In 2009, he declared: “The to-do list for the next government is long and daunting. That is why I know that if we win that election, we cannot afford to waste time having a row with Europe.” Yet under pressure from his restive backbenchers and the increasingly popular UK Independence Party, he has lurched into rejectionism.

As we went to press, Mr Cameron had not delivered his long-delayed address on the EU but his strategy was already in evidence. On the assumption that he wins a majority at the next election (an outcome that is increasingly unlikely), the Prime Minister will seek to use the negotiations over the future shape of the eurozone to repatriate powers from Brussels. Once this process is complete, he will hold a referendum offering voters a choice between what he calls “a new settlement” for Britain and withdrawal. The promise of a referendum may succeed in temporarily assuaging Conservative MPs and in limiting the electoral threat from Ukip, while also putting Labour and the Liberal Democrats under pressure to match his offer. But the Prime Minister’s strategy, driven by partisan, rather than national considerations, risks great losses for uncertain gains.

Even if the changes to the eurozone are formalised through a new treaty, an option that Germany appears increasingly reluctant to pursue, there is no evidence that any EU member is willing to allow Britain to pick and choose which laws it obeys. The UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency (rightly so, as we have long argued) and the Schengen Agreement on free movement. As Britain was never a member of either to begin with, however, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would soon unravel as other member states made similarly self-interested demands.

The danger for the Prime Minister is that, having promised a “fundamental change” in Britain’s relationship with the EU, he will struggle to persuade his party and the public that it is in our interests to remain a member if he fails to deliver. Withdrawal from the EU would, as Mr Cameron concedes, damage our economic prosperity and diminish our global influence. Economists have estimated that the UK would suffer a permanent loss of 2.25 per cent of GDP and the US has declared that it wants to see “a strong British voice” in the EU. The wishful thinking of those Eurosceptics who have long cited the “special relationship” with Washington as an alternative to active EU membership has been exposed. Indeed, the former is increasingly dependent on the latter.

We have no illusions about the flaws of the EU. It is too opaque in its decision-making, too wasteful in its spending and too remote from its citizens. We have never supported UK membership of the eurozone. Yet reform will be secured through sustained engagement and shrewd alliance-building, not bald demands for repatriation.

Mr Cameron is sincere when he says he wishes the UK to remain a member of the EU but the path he has chosen risks leading to withdrawal.