Cameron’s moment of truth

January 23, 2013

Finally, finally, finally we get the much-vaunted David Cameron speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe.

So, what will Cameron say? Most bluntly he will promise a straight in-or-out EU referendum if he wins an election in 2015 and after he has negotiated a “new settlement”. He correctly notes that public disillusionment with Europe is at an all-time high, which is precisely why offering a referendum could lead to Britain leaving the bloc, something even Cameron doesn’t want, although he argues a vote could lance that boil.

A new EU must be built upon five principles, he says: competitiveness, flexibility, power flowing back to member states, democratic accountability and fairness. But there appears to be no detail on the powers he would attempt to claw back, after which he says he would campaign to stay in the bloc.

This is tightrope walking to the nth degree. The Conservative leadership face implacable eurosceptics within their ranks, many of whom want out completely. Cameron almost certainly doesn’t want out but may be pushed in that direction if he cannot deliver the repatriated powers from the EU that he is after. This speech might mollify many in his party but if the hard core fears he is kicking the issue into the long grass they could still cut up rough. His pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners, meanwhile, will be aghast at letting the anti-European genie out of the bottle as will Washington and the majority of business leaders with links to Britain.

Tellingly, Cameron’s people will not answer the question: would he campaign to stay in if he failed to successfully renegotiate with Brussels. For the Conservative party, the last 20 years offers some salutary lessons about being ripped apart by internecine warfare over Europe. After becoming leader in 2005, Cameron said the last thing he wanted to do was obsess about Europe.

The bottom line is that it’s a heroic assumption that Cameron will be able to renegotiate Britain’s terms with the EU, despite his argument that the dramatic changes that will result from the euro zone debt crisis demands a broader reassessment of the bloc’s treaty. If he fails, the vast majority of his party are likely to sway towards an “out” vote. 

Here’s why: All Britain’s 26 partners must be willing to renegotiate on Cameron’s agenda and many fear opening up an a-la-carte Europe with any number of countries picking and choosing their level of involvement; There is a good chance euro zone states will press ahead with closer integration without reopening the EU treaties, which will be tortuously lengthy; Nobody wants to engage on this before Cameron is re-elected so nothing is going to happen for the next two years; What he is asking would require others in the EU to win the consent of their own voters or parliaments for any special deal with Britain.

Lastly, the traditional position of Germany and others, valuing Britain’s place at the table because of its free market stance, is waning fast. Cameron’s wielding of his veto at an EU summit in late 2011 soured many towards him. So in a nutshell, this is much, much easier said than done.


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