Britain’s European partners told David Cameron on Wednesday his demand for radical reform of the European Union and an “in-out” referendum on U.K. 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 corner.
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.
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. defense 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 United Kingdom.”
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 reform ideas.
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”.