Angela Merkel’s visit to the UK last month seems to have worked wonders. Within three weeks of the German chancellor’s speech to the House of Commons and her private meetings with political leaders, the two most risky “Brexit” scenarios are now less likely.
First, the Labour opposition has virtually ruled out holding a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership if it wins power in 2015. Such a plebiscite might well have led to an Out vote given that, in such a scenario, the Tory party and press could have formed a united front opposing membership.
The second risky scenario was that David Cameron would win reelection and set “impossibilist” demands for how he wanted to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU. But he has just come out with a list of reforms which, while wishy-washy, are moderate. He has also said that, if he gets his way, he will campaign for an In vote – which means the people are less likely to vote Out.
The hardline eurosceptics in Cameron’s Conservative party won’t be impressed by his wish list. Nowhere does he list a series of powers – for example, on employment and social legislation – that he would like to repatriate from the EU to Britain. That would have been an unrealistic demand involving a complete rewrite of the EU’s treaties.
What Cameron does advocate is “powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it.” This vague promise looks like something more minimal and achievable: that the EU should, in future, pay more attention to its principle of subsidiarity – something the Dutch government has summed up in the phrase “Europe if necessary, national when possible.”