The FINANCIAL -- Europe's patience with an increasingly eurosceptic Britain is running
out, EU President Herman Van Rompuy has warned, saying London's
pick-and-choose approach puts the whole project at risk.
Attempts by British Prime Minister David Cameron to win back selected powers from Brussels threaten the 27-nation bloc, Van Rompuy said.
"If every member state were able to cherry-pick those parts of existing policies that they most like, and opt out of those that they least like, the union in general, and the single market in particular, would soon unravel," Van Rompuy told The Guardian newspaper in an interview Thursday.
The reference to the single market is telling, because Cameron insists that what he is trying to do, especially when at odds with Brussels, is to protect the single market in the best interests of all member states.
As EUbusiness reported, recent moves toward greater economic and fiscal integration in the 17-nation eurozone are all well and good, he says, but they must not at the same time undercut its bedrock achievement.
Cameron, under pressure from eurosceptics in his Conservative party, said last month that he still supported British membership of the EU but wanted a "new settlement" that involves winning opt-outs on key issues.
But for Van Rompuy, it does not and cannot play out like that.
"All member states can, and do, have particular requests and needs that are always taken into consideration as part of our deliberations," he said.
"I do not expect any member state to seek to undermine the fundamentals of our cooperative system in Europe," he added.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy and paymaster, takes a dim view too.
"We want to keep Britain in the EU and not force it out ... but I will also say, that does not mean anyone can blackmail us," German Finance Minister Walter Schaeuble told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on Sunday.
Former head of the European Commission France's Jacques Delors weighed in by suggesting that Britain could leave the EU and then negotiate a new type of partnership which might suit its interests better.
"The British are solely concerned about their economic interests, nothing else. They could be offered a different form of partnership," Delors told the German business daily Handelsblatt in an interview Friday.
"If the British cannot support the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends but on a different basis," he said.
"I could imagine a form such as a European economic area or a free trade agreement ... (Britain is) strategically and economically important," he said, adding that London should remain "a privileged partner".
Critics of that sort of arrangement usually cite the case of Norway, which abides by most EU rules as a member of the European Economic Area but, as they also note, has no say in setting them, a setup Britain might find hard to accept.
Opinion polls increasingly show Britons favouring a full exit from the EU, which is widely perceived in Britain as meddling in domestic affairs and wasting money during a time of austerity at home.
Britain joined the EU in 1973 after years of uncertainty over its post-World War II role in the world.
It was famously kept out for years by French President General Charles de Gaulle, who had grave doubts about London's commitment to Europe.
Van Rompuy told The Guardian that he would be unhappy to see Britain leave.
It would be like seeing "a friend walk off into the desert ... Britain's contribution is greater, I think, than it sometimes realises itself," he said.