David Cameron’s bad summer in Brussels

A few months ago, David Cameron announced his intentions for a renegotiation of the EU treaties. Among his main targets, the scrapping of the phrase calling for an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” appeared to be high on the list.

With European leaders almost unanimously opposed, this effort ranks among one of Cameron’s most futile attempts yet to achieve meaningful change in Brussels. It’s not just because he lacks political capital; the Prime Minister isn’t making much progress for the simple reason that the phrase does not inspire any kind of European political action.

Before I discuss Cameron’s negotiation of the clause, we need to understand something of its historical context. The Treaty of Rome, which contains the “ever closer union” clause, was signed in 1957 by the six founding nations of European integration and all countries that have joined since then. Europe was split by the Iron Curtain and the former great powers realised that influence over the fate of their continent was no longer in their hands. Just a year before, the world had witnessed the de facto partition of Europe in the form of the Hungarian Revolution. The people of Hungary had forced the communist regime out and supported a more independent government, which was suppressed some days later by Soviet tanks. The international community was shocked, yet the USA stood and watched. With this in mind, the free nations of Europe decided to show their solidarity for each other, indicating that the new status quo could not force them into the cadres of East or West. Their tool was a clause in their first treaty, calling for an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” The same clause affirms the democratic values of the participating nations by following up the previous statement with the phrase, “Decisions are [to be] taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.”

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Britain put its signature to this agreement, as well as this particular phrase, upon joining the European Community in the 1970s. On a day to day basis, however, no nation or European institution has yet translated this discussion of higher levels of European integration into a working mandate for change. In the European Council, for example, discussions of the current refugee crisis do not turn into a 27-nation disagreement over a decision based on “ever closer union”, with David Cameron banging the table saying that this is not in the UK’s interests. Realistically, discussion of “ever closer union” in every decision the Council made would not produce any political outcome, as decisions on new competences are based on unanimity.

For the simple reason that Brussels cannot expand its competences without agreement in the Council, “ever closer union” does not have political consequences for actions taken by the European Parliament, the Commission or the Council of Ministers. According to research by the House of Commons Library, the European Court of Justice is the sole institution to use this clause in daily practice; it cited the phrase ‘only’ 54 times, of which a great majority were in perambulatory clauses. To put it simply, David Cameron is attacking a clause of very little consequence.

Our only conclusion can be that “ever closer union” is merely symbolic. This symbolism was affirmed by all European leaders in 2014 indicating that, “The concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.”

With a key referendum coming up soon, it is questionable whether Cameron’s crusade against a hollow shell of three words is a wise use of political capital – something which he already lacks in Brussels.

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Cameron is trying to change the facade of the EU, while he could engage in meaningful debate on its workings, by addressing the question of cutting red tape for businesses, full liberalisation of the financial services market for the City of London or social issues like benefit claiming.

All in all, the Prime Minister seems to be like an ordinary student who has wasted valuable time mucking around in the summer, and now faces a number of looming essay deadlines.