François Hollande declares opposition to ‘a la carte’ Europe in which members can choose which bits of EU law applies to them
David Cameron’s strategy of exploiting the euro crisis to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and claw back powers from Brussels has run into stiff resistance from France on Friday.
At the close of an European Council summit focused on the future shape of the single currency, François Hollande declared his opposition to an “a la carte” Europe where member states may choose which bits of EU law should apply. The French president insisted member states had to comply with the terms of EU treaties they had signed and ratified, saying: “Europe is not a Europe where you can take back competences. It is not Europe a la carte.
Hollande, however, added that he was open to a debate on the issue if the Lisbon treaty needed to be reopened as part of the effort to make the euro more fit for purpose.
His remarks highlight the problems Cameron might find if the British prime minister comes good on his expected pledge to seek to “repatriate” powers from Brussels before possibly putting a new settlement to a referendum in Britain following the next general election.
There is little prospect of EU treaties being reopened before the next European parliament elections in 2014. In order to succeed in his gameplan, Cameron would need to persuade 26 other governments to allow concessions for Britain, an achievement that looks improbable at present.
But earlier this week, the chancellor, George Osborne, secured favourable procedures making it difficult for Britain to be outvoted by the 17 eurozone countries on banking supervision and regulation as the euro area moves towards establishing a single supervisor for its banking sector.
British officials talked optimistically of using that result as a template for gaining further exemptions from EU regulation in other policy areas as the bloc shifts towards a two-tier Europe with Britain on the lower tier.
“These debates about sovereignty and control are debates they are going to have to have,” said Cameron. “As this plays out, this is changing the European Union. As it changes the European Union and the eurozone make changes that they need, so I believe there are opportunities for others, including Britain, to make changes ourselves.”
France’s opposition, articulated publicly for the first time, is echoed in private remarks from senior German officials who fear that a successful UK campaign could open a pandora’s box, with several countries seeking to pick and choose which parts of EU law they want to apply.
Cameron is the first British prime minister actively advocating and pushing for the creation of a two-tier Europe. He is using the sovereign debt crisis to encourage greater integration of the eurozone while demanding a quid pro quo for his assent to treaty change in the form of a looser UK relationship emphasising the sanctity and value of the EU’s single market.
But EU officials complain Britain has to be forced to stick with the rules and social terms of the single market, otherwise it will gain competitive advantages over the other member states.
Government officials in the UK contested Hollande’s remarks, arguing there was nothing in the EU treaties proscribing the repatriation of powers from Brussels.
“It’s wrong to say you can’t repatriate powers. There’s no clause written down anywhere that says this can’t be done,” said a Downing Street source.
Cameron’s task if further complicated by anxieties over revisiting the Lisbon treaty. Several EU countries, including France, Ireland and the Netherlands, want avoid any reopening, since it could trigger years of gruelling brinkmanship resulting in the need for national referendums on a new dispensation.
Germany, by contrast, often argues in favour of the need to renegotiate the treaty to make the kind of legal and policy changes deemed necessary to reinforce the euro and integrate fiscal policy in the eurozone.