France has warned David Cameron against seeking an EU “à la carte”, amid clear annoyance in Paris over the British prime minister’s stance on Europe.
“France wants the UK to stay in the EU. It gains much from UK membership in many areas, including defence and energy. But what is clear is that nobody in Europe can accept that a state can pick and choose [which rules it accepts],” said a senior official in President François Hollande’s administration.
“That is Europe à la carte – and that is just not possible.”
The tone was set in December 2011 when Mr Cameron cast Britain’s veto against adopting a new treaty on fiscal discipline intended to help stanch the eurozone crisis, prompting the then President Nicolas Sarkozy to call him, reportedly, “an obstinate kid”.
Now Mr Cameron’s call to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, followed by a referendum, is causing French heads to shake.
“To say, ‘We want to stay in the EU, but repatriate powers and then hold a referendum after the general election,’ is unrealistic,” said Gérard Errera, a former ambassador to London and now chairman of the private equity group Blackstone in France.
“It is not just annoying to France, it is annoying to everybody, and that goes for those who would be the natural allies of Britain. If Britain thinks it can blackmail us, it will have to think again. Europe is at too critical a moment that anyone would want to allow Britain to complicate the situation even more.”
Mr Cameron’s stance has prompted Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission and one of the architects of the single currency, to suggest that Britain should leave the EU.
“The [EU] has a very small motor and Britain is a big brake. We have to reconsider the marriage contract between Europe and the UK,” Mr Delors told the Financial Times this week.
“There are certain things the UK will never accept. The only way is to create a special status for Britain. We can’t go on in a situation that is irritating all sides.”
Mr Delors is suggesting something such as the status of members of the European Economic Area, created for European countries that have stayed outside the EU, notably Norway and Switzerland – a status many British eurosceptics have advocated.
“Otherwise we will continue discussions without end and without advancing,” he said.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, takes a more accommodating view, saying it should be “perfectly possible” to find a way of keeping the UK in the EU without renegotiating the EU’s underlying treaties – a prospect he says is impossible.
“There has always been a contradiction in the British culture of wanting to keep a certain distance from what is happening in Europe but at the same time wanting to have a presence in European affairs to make sure what is going on suits them,” he told the FT. “That has been the case since the 18th century.”
But he warned: “What the UK will have difficulty gaining acceptance for is to want to be the biggest country in the trading of the euro but not to be a member of the eurozone. The demand of the British banking sector to be active in the euro but not to accept the internal rules – that is not possible.”
The senior Hollande administration official said even if there were a willingness to renegotiate terms of British membership, it would be very hard legally and practically to have the UK pull out of EU competences in areas such as fisheries and social policy – policies to which France is strongly committed.
“We need to avoid a situation where the [British] population has the impression that there is an easy solution,” said the official. “There is no easy solution like that.”
He said that if Britain left the EU, it would have to “go back to the future with a status like Norway – and with the [non-existent] voting rights of Norway. Norway has no opt-outs on EU directives.”
Across the board, there is frustration at the perceived threat of a British withdrawal of commitment to the EU.
“I had the privilege of holding many discussions with Margaret Thatcher, and it was out of the question then for Britain not to be in Europe,” said Mr Delors. “She simply discussed very firmly what she wanted and what she didn’t want.”