The 2013/01/30 at 08:05
Stéphanie Salti, in London
Postponed time and time again, the speech delivered by British Prime Minister David Cameron on Europe finally took place on 23 January this year. In his speech, the Prime Minister opened the way to the organisation – after the general elections in 2015 but no later than 2017 – of a referendum on whether the United Kingdom will stay in a European Union where the country intends to renegotiate its role beforehand. While the Conservative Party has hailed this new direction, other British political parties have shown themselves to be much more prudent, indicating that uncertainty over Britain’s place in the EU27 may well dissuade companies from investing.
On the international scene, this speech has been received with great scepticism, especially from Germany and France. On the German side, Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed that “we must always bear in mind that other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise”. On a firmer note, French President François Hollande declared that “it is not possible to negotiate on Europe. Europe has to be accepted as it is”.
The two countries have not, however, closed the door of Europe to Great Britain, despite their awareness of the rise of euroscepticism within British borders, particularly in the more conservative fringe of David Cameron’s party. The British Prime Minister has nevertheless insisted on his attachment to Europe. On the occasion of a speech during the 43rd World Economic Forum in Davos on 24 January, the Prime Minister made reassuring noises indicating that Great Britain did not wish to turn its back on Europe: “Quite the opposite. It’s about how we make the case for a more competitive, open and flexible Europe and secure the UK’s place within it.”
The prospect of a referendum has already divided British enterprises. The body in charge of British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) as well as the Institute of Directors (IoD) have stated their support for the Prime Minister on the issue of the referendum. In a letter to The Times newspaper, 56 company heads, including Xavier Rolet, Chief Executive of the London Stock Exchange and Sir John Peace, Chairman of Standard Chartered, also expressed their approval of the Prime Minister’s decision. “This is the moment to push for a more flexible, competitive EU that would bring jobs and growth for all member states,” declares the open letter. Other business leaders are much more sceptical about the benefits of Britain’s possible exit from the European Union.
According to Martin Sorrell, head of the WPP advertising group, this decision “just added another reason why people are going to postpone investment decisions”. The same bell is sounded within the body in charge of British manufacturing, the EEF. “If the door to a UK exit from the union is open, it will diminish our ability to influence the reforms that Europe needs,” warns Terry Scuoler, Chief Executive of the EFF. The business district in the City has also indicated a few reserves about the prospect. Mark Boleat, Policy Chairman at the City of London Corporation, an association representing the City’s interests, indicated to The Financial Times that “uncertainty over this relationship with Europe risks making the UK less attractive as an international centre across many industries”.
Commentators also express their surprise about the sparseness of details on the issue of the UK’s repatriation of some European powers. David Cameron has never shown much patience for questions on employment law and labour law in general. Yet there is no doubt that these issues will be at the core of new negotiations with the EU.