As was to be expected, the most fundamental criticism of David Cameron’s speech from Brussels, Berlin most other capitals was that he is “cherry picking” and wants “Europe à la carte” - and that this is “not an option” and “bad for Europe”.
Well, is it? There are some rather good arguments for a model of Europe as “an association of sovereign states, which pool their sovereignty in very restricted areas or to varying degrees” as Larry Siedentop once put it in his book “Democracy in Europe”. Also constitutional economics provides some good arguments for flexible integration or variable geometry (instead of two-speed Europe).
But let me here just quote from another speech – the Third Jean Monnet Lecture held in 1979 in Florence by Ralf Dahrendorf (who was Member of the German Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary of State at the Foreign Office of Germany, European Commissioner for External Relations and Trade, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Education, Member and life peer of the British House of Lords, director of the London School of Economics, Warden of St Antony's College at the University of Oxford and Professor of Sociology at a number of universities in Germany and the United Kingdom).
Perhaps you will be struck by his defense of “Europe à la carte” – and perhaps you will think that this is quite close to what David Cameron could or should have said.
The floor is yours, Lord Dahrendorf (the full text can be found here):
“It is emphatically not the desire of some of the founding fathers to create another superpower; to have as much decentralization as possible and only as much centralization as necessary, is a prescription for a humane society to which many, including myself, would subscribe today
“The policy of the British government is to express its commitment to the Community – which is appreciated – to assure its partners that it does not propose to break the law – which is more than can be said of some others, though it remains to be seen what exactly the British Government has in mind – and to demand a « broad balance » of contributions and benefits. It will be for politicians to try and find out how much room for manoeuvre the notion of « broad balance » allows; at first sight, it certainly does not seem unreasonable.
"To say that we have to start again in order to build Europe would be wrong; there is much in the acquis communautaire which is worth preserving. But what we need is more than mere adjustments and reformlets; we need a fundamental reappraisal.
"I have often been struck by the prevailing view in Community circles that the worst that can happen is any movement towards what is called a Europe à la carte. This is not only somewhat odd for someone who likes to make his own choices, but also illustrates that strange puritanism, not to say masochism which underlies much of Community action: Europe has to hurt in order to be good. Any measure that does not hurt at least some members of the European Community is (in this view) probably wrong. In any case it is regarded as unthinkable that one should ever allow those members of the Community who want to go along with certain policies to do so, and those who are not interested to stay out. The European interest (it is said) is either general or it does not exist.
"I believe that at this stage of European union, such a view is not only wrong, but in fact an obstacle to further European integration. To be sure, certain decisions have to be common. But even they should be decisions: a budget which is automatically fed and automatically spent is a monstrosity; it must be possible for politicians to set ceilings, discuss priorities and thus express interests. A customs union requires a common commitment; though it does not require measures of harmonization the economic importance of which is marginal while the psychological damage is considerable. Above and beyond a short list of common and genuinely political decisions, however, there is wide scope for action à la carte, and more often than not such action will in the end lead to common policies. The European Monetary System is an example; its comparative success exerts a considerable magnetic force on those who are not members [remember: this was said in 1979 … MW]. In the field of foreign policy, similar, though less visible developments have taken place. Perhaps, the answer to the impasse of the Common Agricultural Policy is to turn at least some of its aspects into à la carte decisions, binding for and financed by those who are interested in them. Hill farming was a good beginning in this respect; other areas of agricultural policy will, one hopes, have to follow once the Common Fund explodes the ceiling of the Community's own resources. The general point however seems to me of the utmost importance: Europe à la carte, that is common policies where there are common interests without any constraint on those who cannot, at a given point of time, join them, must become the rule rather than the exception, if European union is not to get stuck in a mixture of incomprehensible technicalities, systematic cheating on the part of some, demands for exceptions which destroy overly complex systems, and a sense of frustration and misery all around.