3:00pm

Fri December 9, 2011
Europe

Britain Skeptical About Euro

Originally published on Fri December 9, 2011 6:12 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More insular than ever - so says the French newspaper Le Mon, and it was referring to Britain and that country's decision not to join the effort to forge a new European pact. Today, nearly every European leader expressed support for that pact, but not the British prime minister, David Cameron. NPR's Philip Reeves explains.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Thirty-eight years have elapsed since Britain joined what was to become today's European Union. It's never been a comfortable fit. The British enjoy access to the single market, but balk at being governed by Brussels. Today saw an historic hiatus in the relationship. At its heart is a row with the two other heavyweights on the block, Germany and France. The French and Germans arrived at the E.U. summit hoping leaders would agree to tough new rules, forcing wayward eurozone nations to balance their books.

To give these rules legal weight, they wanted them written into existing treaties that govern the wider European Union. Cameron vetoed this. Afterwards, his foreign secretary, William Hague, was unrepentant.

WILLIAM HAGUE: We're not - on this subject or any other subject - we are not going to give up more of our power from the United Kingdom to the European Union.

REEVES: The 17 nations that use the euro decided instead to negotiate a separate, intergovernmental treaty without Cameron, and outside the framework of the E.U. The great majority of the other 27 E.U. nations are behind it. Back in Britain, Cameron's show of defiance is the subject of intense debate. Websites are burning up with messages for and against. This is tricky terrain for the British premier. His conservative party includes many so-called euro skeptics, many of whom cheered him on today. The trouble is, his government's in coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democratic Party.

Cameron exercised his veto because other European leaders refused to give him certain safeguards about regulating Britain's mighty financial hub, the city of London. He did the right thing, says the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a fellow conservative.

BORIS JOHNSON: I'm not going to say that the sewers would have yawned and great euro rats would have, you know, come out with mutant eyes and devoured our financial services. Oh, please, that's not what was going to happen.

REEVES: Johnson thinks the other Europeans are motivated by jealousy.

JOHNSON: They see London is the leading commercial capital of Europe; it's the place where people want to come do deals. And they're fed up with it. They think - they don't understand why it doesn't happen in Frankfurt or Paris.

REEVES: They're rivals, says Johnson, who want to fetter London's ability to stay ahead of the game. But the idea of an isolated Britain worries many.

DAVID HANNAY: We've never before absented ourselves from the table when a treaty was being negotiated.

REEVES: David Hannay is a British diplomat who helped bring about Britain's entry into the European project all those years ago.

HANNAY: Don't let's delude ourselves. The 17, plus quite a few others, are going to negotiate a treaty - not within the E.U. treaties, but it will be a treaty, and it will have binding legal obligations on them. We have never, never left the seat empty before and now, we're doing so.

REEVES: Hannay says this has great risks.

HANNAY: The risks are that we will find ourselves either in a minority of one, or a very small minority, trying to handle normal EU business with a lot of other countries which have probably got their acts together somewhere else where we were not, and that will be very difficult.

REEVES: William Hague, the foreign secretary, denies that Cameron's alienated the Europeans.

HAGUE: It doesn't mean that the United Kingdom loses its influence over other matters. We are, of course, by preventing a new treaty, amending the treaties of the European Union, and assuring that the key decisions that affect us - such as to do with the single market - are still made by the 27 nations, including us.

REEVES: In Britain, the debate will run and run. Elsewhere in Europe, though, some have already made up their minds about the British. One German website summed up its views concisely - Auf Wiedersehen, England.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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