State of the union

Cameron's promise of a referendum underlines the distance between the EU and its citizens

When David Cameron chose to address the vexed question of Britain's position in Europe through a long-delayed speech, few imagined that it would turn out to have a dramatic impact. The cynical expectation that preceded the British PM's speech suggested that his peroration would make the case for disillusionment with the European project while steering clear of any meaningful action. As it turns out, the boldness of his resolve marks a seminal moment for modern British political discourse. In promising to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union and an eventual referendum on whether to stay in or exit the EU by the end of 2017, Cameron has confounded his ardent critics and delighted his passionate supporters. He has also delivered a high stakes wake-up call to the EU.

The immediate aftermath of the speech has yielded an uptick in Tory popularity. The rare tribe of Tory europhiles may have been displeased by Cameron's speech but the majority of the party feels otherwise. A large chunk of eurosceptic backbenchers that had begun to grow openly restless has been adroitly pacified for now. Across the political spectrum, the Tory promise has checked the growing surge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a vociferous political party that courted the Tory core vote by campaigning on an anti-EU prospectus. It has also put the Labour party in a decidedly uncomfortable position. The Labour party remains instinctively pro-European but its leader Ed Miliband risks being seen as out of touch by denying voters the in-out referendum that they crave. The same holds for the Liberal Democrats.

Nonetheless, even if it could be said that the underlying purpose of David Cameron's decision to call a referendum is a Machiavellian political calculation to appease his own party, there are also compelling constitutional reasons that support such a move. Referendums are an important mechanism for securing democratic consent in the face of a sustained and intractable political conundrum of national importance. The thorny matter of Britain's relationship with Europe was always unlikely to be resolved by the rough and tumble of a general election alone.

The deeper significance of David Cameron's speech, though, lies in its eloquent analysis of the anomalies that plague the EU project. Three key structural challenges that face the EU were highlighted. First, it is clear that the difficulties of the eurozone are currently driving fundamental change in Europe. The EU is changing to help the currency and that has profound implications for its constituents, whether in the single currency or not. In order to ward off the notion of a "two-speed" Europe, member states outside the eurozone urgently need safeguards to ensure that their access to the single market is not in any way compromised.

Second, there is a crisis of European competitiveness, as other nations across the world and the rising powers of the East leap ahead. Taken as a whole, Europe's share of world output is projected to fall by almost a third in the next two decades. There is little doubt that a penchant for excessive centralisation and bureaucracy is stifling business and discouraging enterprise within the EU.

Most fundamentally though, there is a gap between the EU and its citizens that has widened in recent years. Europe continues to be perceived as an elitist project. Unsurprisingly, there is a growing frustration, with the EU being seen as something that is done to people rather than as acting on their behalf. People are increasingly outraged that decisions taken remotely mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or that their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent. As technocrats strive towards fashioning an "ever closer union" as the answer to the continent's fiscal woes, the truth is that this delusional vision remains far removed from the wishes of ordinary citizens.

The long-term answer lies in a leaner and less bureaucratic union that is able to respect the diversity of its member states. Such a reformed union will need to be flexible, promote competitiveness and accept a much greater role for national parliaments without insisting on a broken, one-size fits all approach. The promise of a referendum in Britain has highlighted these underlying sentiments with clarity. The truth is that for a majority of ordinary citizens, the EU is a means to an end prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond not an end in itself. But it remains to be seen whether the bureaucrats in Brussels will be prepared to listen to this unequivocal message.

The writer is a lawyer based in London.

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