BERLIN/PARIS Jan 23 Britain's European partners
told David Cameron on Wednesday his demand for radical reform of
the EU and an "in-out" referendum on UK membership showed a
selfish and ignorant attitude.
France went so far as to call Britain's bluff and say it was
free to leave. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had told
a recent meeting with British businessmen: "If Britain wants to
leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet for you."
That was a riposte to Cameron who last year used the same
phrase to welcome wealthy French tax exiles to Britain.
EU politicians turned to culinary and sporting metaphors to
vent frustration at the prime minister's promise to renegotiate
Britain's already semi-detached membership of the EU and put it
to a popular vote if he wins re-election in 2015.
"Cherry-picking is not an option," German Foreign Minister
Guido Westerwelle said. Two French cabinet ministers accused
Cameron of treating Europe like an "a la carte" menu from which
Britain thought it could pick and choose.
Peter Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner and veteran
British Labour government minister, called it a "schizophrenic"
speech and said Europe would not respond positively to being
treated as a "cafeteria service where you bring your own tray
and leave with what you want".
Fabius said it was as if Britain had joined a football club
and then suddenly said "let's play rugby".
Martin Schulz, the head of the European Parliament which
with the European Commission was the butt of Cameron's criticism
of "sclerotic" EU decision-making, was just plain angry.
Britain was pointing the finger but was "overwhelmingly to
blame for all the delays in Europe", said Schulz. "He just wants
change in the single interest of Britain and that's not fair."
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative
sympathies for Cameron's party are overshadowed by anger at
their exit from the centre-right EU bloc and veto of her fiscal
pact, the view is that the UK premier has painted himself into a
German politicians face eurosceptic pressures of their own
but say Cameron pays too much attention to a loud minority who
play up what he called disillusionment "at an all-time high".
"Cameron is using EU membership as a tactical tool for
domestic politics," said Manuel Sarrazin of the German Greens.
CRITICISM NOT UNANIMOUS
Even if opinion to Britain was warmer, it is far from clear
how it could initiate and successfully pilot a treaty
negotiation, EU officials said.
Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and now
leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, said the
British premier was "playing with fire" by trying to renegotiate
Britain's EU membership and put it to the vote.
"His speech was full of inconsistencies, displaying a degree
of ignorance about how the EU works," said Verhofstadt.
Verhofstadt and others said there could be "no question" of
granting Britain wholesale opt-outs from common European rules
and regulations, saying this risked precipitating an unravelling
of the EU and its internal market
The alarm is not confined to Europe. Britain has also been
warned by the White House and a host of business leaders it
would lose global influence if it left the EU.
"In the larger context of history, Europe is an enormous
success and a Europe with Britain in it is much more powerful
and important than without it," said Joseph Nye, a former U.S.
defence department official and professor at Harvard.
President Barack Obama "very much wants Britain to remain in
the EU", Nye told a panel at the Davos World Economic Forum.
But the response to Cameron's long-awaited speech was not
uniformly negative. Finland's Europe minister, Alex Stubb, said
he did not think Cameron wanted to quit the EU.
"He wants to get this discussion done and clarify Britain's
position in the EU once and for all. In that sense I do respect
his line," he said.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas, whose government was the
only one other than Britain's not to sign the EU's fiscal pact,
told a news conference: "We share the view with the United
Kingdom that Europe should be more flexible, more open, should
strive more for confidence among its citizens.
"We have no interest in Britain's departure from the EU, on
the contrary, we have interest in a European future for the
Cameron gave some EU leaders advance warning of the content
of his speech and some, even if they did not like what they
heard, agreed with the premier that it was high time for an
honest debate about reform.
Dutch premier Mark Rutte, who shares Cameron's concerns but
does not want an opt-out, called it a "strong speech" with good
Talk of tragedy might not sway Cameron, who began his speech
by saying Britain's approach to Europe was "more practical than
emotional". But EU diplomats said that on a rational level too
his analysis was flawed and contradictory.
"Basically it boiled down to: 'Let's re-elect me, let's then
change our ties with Europe, and then let's have a referendum on
something that's not defined yet'," said one EU diplomat.
Jolyon Howorth, a British scholar of European politics, said
it might be better if Britain left as the EU would then be free
to work towards its vision of a federal Europe, "unhampered by
the brake-man on the caboose".