Danes: Cameron’s EU speech sets new vision for Europe

MEP says British PM’s plans for more flexible EU are wishful thinking, though an expert argues Cameron is not alone in demanding greater leeway for member states

The EU has reached a turning point following British prime minister David Cameron’s highly anticipated speech about the union this morning, according to legislators and policy watchers in Denmark.

Cameron said the UK would hold a referendum on EU membership in the next five years once the country had renegotiated its relationship to the 27-member union.

At the heart of his speech was a call for the EU to allow more space for national differences, while also reducing regulations he argued damaged competition in the single market.

“The EU must be able to act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the cumbersome rigidity of a bloc,” Cameron said. “[We] are a family of democratic nations, all members of one European Union, whose essential foundation is the single market rather than the single currency.”

Cameron argued that the EU’s single market was its cornerstone, though MEP Dan Jørgensen (Socialdemokraterne) said that position ignored the value of other areas of European cooperation.

“I don’t think he can get what he’s asking for,” Jørgensen told The Copenhagen Post. “He wants the EU to consist only of a single market but we’ve made the union into something greater and which also protects the environment, social welfare and other areas. He is also calling for less regulation at the worst possible time. The economic crisis showed us the need to regulate markets more, not less.”

The financial crisis and Eurozone debt crisis have lead European leaders – spearheaded by France and Germany – to call for increased economic and budgetary integration. The fiscal compact and banking treaties that were drawn up last year are hoped to prevent future crises by providing greater centralised EU oversight of country’s finances and banks.

But the UK under Cameron seems to be moving in the opposite direction. While Cameron said he was currently in favour of staying a member of the EU, the fear remains that if the UK is not granted the concessions it wants – such as staying out of the fiscal compact and securing opt-outs from justice and home affairs decisions – Cameron will support an exit that will throw the EU into even greater turmoil.

Professor Peter Nedergaard, of the University of Copenhagen, argued Cameron’s speech was an attempting to map out a new path for the EU.

“Flexible integration is a new discourse in the EU which is presented as an alternative to one-size-fits-all solutions and instead allows countries to choose what areas of cooperation they do or do not want to be part of,” Nedergaard said. “This is the way ahead for Europe and I think it would be a failure to view David Cameron as a lonely guy in this game. The major trend in Europe is acknowledging that we have a common core of trade and business regulations but also accepting flexibility about how integrated countries want to be.”

MEP Morten Messerschmidt (Dansk Folkeparti) is a strong supporter of Cameron’s demands for more flexibility within the EU and called his speech a “historic turning point for the EU”.

He added that Denmark would be wise to follow the UK’s lead.

“We should examine which areas of European cooperation infringe on Danish sovereignty, examine whether Denmark benefits from the cooperation, and demand a return of power if they do not,” Messerschmidt told The Copenhagen Post. “We don’t all need the same level of integration. We need to be able to opt out more easily. But if some states want to create a federation, they shouldn’t be able to completely exclude others.”

Many EU countries, including Denmark, have already opted out of various aspects of European policy making. But following Cameron’s speech, Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament told the BBC that "Cameron's Europe a la carte not an option. We have to focus on jobs and growth rather than getting lost in treaties discussions.”

A great deal of the UK economy is dependent on membership of the EU’s single market and a decision to leave the union has been described by some as economic suicide. According to MEP Jørgensen, the dependence of the Danish economy on the single market makes it unlikely that politicians here would call for a referendum.

“There are Eurosceptics in Denmark and I think it’s healthy to be critical. But we are a small country with an open economy that has 400,000 jobs that are dependent on the single market. Leaving would have tremendous economic consequences.”

Jørgensen reiterated that the EU provides far more safeguards than mere economic stability.

“While I wish we weren’t having this debate because I fear the UK might leave, I think it opens the debate about why we need the EU. Most Danes don’t share Cameron’s views. Danes want the EU to fight against social dumping and for high social and environmental standards, but Cameron does not want this. He just wants the single market.”