The UK and Europe

David Cameron's letter

Stephen Castle / Nov 2015

Photo: European Union


Even before its publication, David Cameron's long-awaited letter to European colleagues on his re-negotiation of EU membership highlights the complexity of this opaque, contorted, process.

In the ornate chambers of the Foreign Office, the Europe Minister, David Lidington, plays down  expectations that the letter, due to be sent soon to the European Council president, Donald Tusk, will finally spell out the fine print of what Britain wants.  The "last thing" Mr. Cameron should do, Mr. Lidington says, is publish  "a detailed negotiating position", setting out "red lines."

Across the road  at Westminster there are grumblings from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs that the letter may now be published after Parliament goes into recess on Tuesday (Nov10) - thereby reducing the prospect that critical MPs will be able to gang up to make trouble.  

All this underlines the difficulties Mr. Cameron faces in a renegotiation modelled on the tactics of Harold Wilson's who, before the 1975 referendum, returned from the continent with an insubstantial deal that, nonetheless, paved the way for a "yes" vote. 

When Mr. Cameron promised his in-out referendum in the Bloomberg speech in January 2013, such detailed haggling must have seemed a distant prospect.  

Back in 2013 it was far from clear that Mr. Cameron would be in Downing Street after the May 2015 election to carry out the pledged renegotiation and referendum. Most people - Mr. Cameron probably included - thought that, if he was still Prime Minister, it would be at the head of a coalition.

But now, leading a Conservative government with a parliamentary majority (albeit a small one) Mr. Cameron has to deliver. And several, complex, moving parts need to mesh in order to secure the outcome he says he wants - a "yes" vote in the coming referendum.

Mr. Cameron knows that if he asks too much of his fellow European leaders, he damages his chances of getting a decent deal. They need to believe that he is pragmatic, that he intends to negotiate in good faith, and that, after his successful renegotiation, he will lead the campaign to stay in.

But if his wishlist looks too modest, his Eurosceptic enemies at home will pounce, and denounce the renegotiation as the sham they predicted. Hence Mr. Lidington's warning against issuing a detailed negotiating position which "becomes seen either as an opening bid, from which you can of course be negotiated down, or it is seen by another group of people as an absolute minimum that you must get, and any retreat from that is a devastating reverse."

This explains why Britain has so far limited its pronouncements to outlining the general areas where it wants progress in the renegotiation. Mr. Cameron's true objectives are rooted less in sharp visions of the future of Europe and of the architecture of the EU, than in in the optics of British domestic politics. Rather than securing any specific policy changes, he needs to produce a package that looks, smells, and feels substantial enough to reassure the majority of Conservative MPs that he has won something worth having.  

Of course there are a number of Tory MPs who want to leave the EU, and who will never be persuaded by anything Mr. Cameron can realistically hope to deliver. But there are many who want to support him, and some others who are wavering Eurosceptics, who might be persuaded. If they are going to vote in favour of EU membership, they will need ammunition to justify doing so to Conservative activists (most of whom are Eurosceptic to a greater or lesser degree). Unfortunately for Mr. Cameron, the "no" campaigners are much better financed and prepared than in the 1970s, and are waiting to try to pull apart whatever Mr. Cameron secures.

And there is another problem. Even if Mr. Cameron's renegotiation can bring onside a significant portion of the Conservative Party, it has left the broader "yes" campaign with a headache. Many supporters of EU membership on the left believe Mr. Cameron will achieve little. They can hardly base their argument on the diplomacy of a Prime Minister whose record in Brussels they see as very chequered.  

So, providing Mr. Cameron does get a deal, expect two, discordant, if not contradictory, messages from the pro-Europeans. One group will present the Prime Minister's renegotiation as a crucial victory, one which justifies a "yes" vote. Another will undermine that argument by saying that, although  Mr. Cameron has brought back very little, Britain should remain anyway because of the existing benefits of  membership.

Things, then, are destined to be much more tricky for the pro-Europeans than they were in 1975. Mr. Wilson is supposed to have said that a week is a long time in politics, and 30 years is certainly a great deal longer.



Stephen Castle

Stephen Castle

November 2015

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