The genie is out of the bottle

The genie is out of the bottle

British Prime Minister David Cameron let the genie out of the bottle by pledging to offer Britons a vote on whether to leave the European Union if his party wins the next election – expected in 2015 – even if the European club reforms itself.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who came out very strongly against Cameron’s speech, perhaps summed up the sentiments of many other member states when he said that Britain could not treat Europe like an “a la carte” menu, picking and choosing policies it liked. As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius lamented, can a country that joined a football club come up with a “let’s play rugby” suggestion?

Domestic and European critics might say Cameron was wrong in his assessment that disillusionment with the 27-nation EU was “at an all-time high,” and fervently oppose his position that Britain should be allowed to renegotiate the terms of its membership before having an “in-out” say on those re-negotiated terms. Whatever, the genie is out of the bottle and the terms of the gamble – if the speech was indeed a gamble as critics have condemned it – have been unveiled.

Could the salvo fired by Cameron lead to an eventual dissolution of the EU? Well, despite the current economic crisis and the complaints of the “big countries” about the burden they have been shouldering in order to save their “small brothers,” the EU will most probably come out of this crisis stronger than before, as in previous crises. That’s exactly where Cameron has placed his finger, which Westerwelle and others rightly confront by saying: “Cherry-picking is not an option.”

Should the EU go deeper, or continue widening? Should it continue consolidating itself into some sort of a confederation of European states? Should it sacrifice consolidation to geographic and economic enlargement? This is not a new discussion at all, and indeed it is very much related to that famous “digestion” capacity, splashed frequently on the face of Turkey during those good old times when it was aspiring to join the club.

Britain, a firm supporter of Turkish accession, has always been against a group of bureaucrats sitting in Brussels acquiring more sovereignty in policy-making than member governments. Cameron’s EU-skeptic party and government was apparently particularly concerned that new EU regulations to address the debt crisis would further restrict Britain’s self control over its own economic and financial policies as well as undertakings in the banking sector.

Would Cameron’s party win the tentatively scheduled 2015 vote? Would Cameron survive politically until then? Would the British government indeed go to an “in-out” vote, gambling on the EU? These are all difficult questions. Two things, however, appear to be rather clear: 1) The debate on the future of the EU has started; 2) Along with tackling the economic-financial crisis the EU must now sit down and finally make a decision whether it will grow vertically, or horizontally. If Britain looks likely to leave the club, the Turks may also leave it even before joining.

Of course, there is a whole lot of difference between membership and negotiating accession. One may well mean compromising on national sovereignty and perhaps deserves an “out” vote in a referendum, but the accession process - when active - was a catalyst for reform, and it is in Turkey’s best national interests to get it revitalized.