David Cameron's advisors must have been out to lunch when they chose January 22 for the prime minister's long-awaited speech on Europe - a speech that was to mark a before and after in his government's EU policy. Audaciously, they chose Berlin as the setting.
Can you imagine any scene more symbolic than Berlin, where political and economic power now resides, for announcing a referendum on whether or not the UK will remain in the EU? In the past, Churchill and Thatcher had chosen Zurich and Bruges, respectively, for their speeches, so there was some tradition in this respect. But why go to small places, when you can think big? A speech in Berlin would satisfy the Europhobic fantasies of the hard right in Britain, as if sticking a dagger in the heart of the federalist, bureaucratic monster that they so hate. All that was lacking was for Cameron to fly there in a World War II Flying Fortress bomber. All very well, except for a small detail: when the British embassy in Berlin was contacted, it appeared that January 22 was red-lettered as the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between France and Germany - a big occasion that would hog the media coverage.
Can you imagine an anecdote more redolent of the British Conservatives' attitude to the EU? Insensibility, ignorance, disconnection - as if Cameron's Cabinet were made of up journalists from the tabloid newspaper The Sun. Accordingly, the date and venue were changed, to January 18 in Amsterdam, no doubt in the belief that the Dutch, traditionally Anglophile, would be suitable hosts. But the speech had to be postponed once again, due to the terrorist episode at the gas plant in Algeria. An episode that shows to what extent the path the UK is suggesting it take is exactly the reverse of what we need - that is, a Europe capable of united action in defense of its values and interests.
What Cameron wants is to repatriate labor law, so that the British can work longer hours for less pay
Herein lies the saddest aspect of Cameron's speech, in the historic myopia of renouncing the construction of an EU at once useful and legitimate. In his speech on Wednesday, Cameron briefly opened a small window of hope when he said he wanted a Europe open to the world, agile in management, more transparent and democratic in its functioning, capable of competing internationally, and of coping with the challenge of globalization. These are sentiments that many of us share, and reforms in this direction would indeed tend to improve and complete the European Union. But immediately he turned around and demonstrated that the foregoing was mere rhetoric; that his decision is made and that he will not waste a minute looking for allies to attain those objectives.
What Cameron wants is to repatriate labor law, so that the British can work longer hours for less pay; preserve the position of his financial sector within the euro zone, but not be subject to the same regulatory norms as others; be exempt from environmental standards that he thinks are too costly for British companies; undo regional policy so that British taxpayers will not have to subsidize the poorer regions of the EU; establish an à-la-carte participation in police and judicial cooperation; and, as the icing on the cake, block EU fishermen's access to British waters.
Cameron says he believes in the common market, but obviously what he wants is a suit cut not so much to the measure of the UK's interests, as to those of his party. If the EU partner states fail to give him all this (and it is hard to see any reason why they should), Cameron will call the referendum and demand a yes vote for exit. Otherwise he will opt for the no. Joschka Fischer has described this speech as "the eclipse of reason." And he is right: some speak of blackmail, but what this really looks like is suicide.