Tony Blair promised to put Britain at the heart of Europe, and then failed to do it. Not only did he not take Britain into the Euro, but he also divided the EU over Iraq (preventing the development of a proper EU foreign policy). Meanwhile his delegates to Giscard d’Estaing’s Convention on the Future of Europe insisted on keeping the EU as intergovernmental as possible – something that gave us the messy two-Presidents arrangement (Barroso and Van Rompuy, now Juncker and Tusk) in the EU institutions. Now you might agree or disagree with whether these stances taken by Blair were right or not, but during this period, Britain wanted to be on board but then slow down what the EU was trying to do in some areas.
Fast forward to 2015 and I wonder whether this is still the case. Give Cameron and Osborne their due – they do not even pay lip service to putting Britain at the heart of the European Union. Indeed the vocabulary from Osborne in particular is rather the opposite – let the Eurozone integrate, but Britain wants no part of it. “The rest of you – get on with it without us!” seems to be what he is saying. See for example this speech by Osborne, and him backing French-German plans for Eurozone integration. All of this approaches something akin to the Andrew Duff line in that the way to give the British what they want prior to the referendum is for the rest of the EU to further integrate, and to leave the UK where it is.
Now of course there are a bunch of potential problems with this. A multi-speed EU is already hard enough to manage as it is, there is the danger is that other countries are tempted onto the UK’s side (for Iraq a decade ago, read tough line on refugees today), and the UK’s renegotiation demands may still try to reverse benefits EU citizens enjoy in the UK currently (demands to restrict freedom of movement for example). Cameron, and many in his party, still sound rather hectoring towards the rest of the EU and that results in the evaporation of negotiating capital, but I think with Osborne’s approach there is some hope. The Tory party needs to focus on what it wants, and to pipe down when it comes to trying to tell the rest of the EU what to do.
On balance though, I think the case for an even more differentiated multi-speed EU makes good sense at this juncture. Let the UK keep the bits they can live with but also do not involve them in further integration and they can also expect no influence in these newly-integrated areas. Advance with common asylum or foreign policies, or with improved Eurozone governance, and do not even expect the British to participate. But conversely the British can also have no expectation that they can stop things happening either. Britain then will no longer be the brake to further EU integration.