David Cameron is entering last chance saloon territory with EU leaders
If there’s one thing the EU really excels at, it’s procedure. With the possible exception of the UN, no other international organisation can devote so much time and effort to the business of hammering out words and holding meetings.
This year alone, five meetings of the European Council are scheduled and history suggests that more will end up being held. Such frequent get-togethers might be seen as proof of a desire to get to grips with Europe’s pressing issues of the day. Far from it. The fact that so many meetings are scheduled – the next one after this weekend’s being only four weeks later – provides ample excuse to kick difficult decisions down the road.
The reality is that until a crisis becomes acute, the perceived cost of rushing an agreement is higher than the cost of delay.
That’s been the case with the migrant crisis, in the face of all evidence. Right now, the human, social and political cost of not having acted decisively on the migrant crisis is huge: the Schengen Agreement lies in tatters, thousands of migrants have died, millions are on the move (on average, two thousand per day are arriving in Europe this year so far), and anti-immigration feelings have been inflamed across the continent.
Yet still the EU elite doesn’t get it. Donald Tusk said this week that the EU had "no more than two months to get things under control": in other words, the opportunity to reach a solution at this week’s summit can be let slip, which almost certainly means that it will be let slip.
That is both blessing and curse for David Cameron. The Council agenda has only two main items: the migrant crisis and Cameron’s UK-EU negotiations (of which the negotiations come first).
The tacit inference that dealing with the migrant crisis can slip gives Cameron more opportunity to reach agreement on his priority. On the other hand, firstly, it’s far from a done deal and might also slip to March or later, and secondly, the longer the migrant crisis goes on, the worse the backdrop for those campaigning to keep Britain in the EU.
All of which puts a huge amount of pressure on Cameron make that agreement this week. A referendum in June is undoubtedly his preference given the mood music the media’s being fed, allowing Cameron to capitalise on infighting between the Leave campaigns as well as minimising as far as possible splits within the Conservatives (at least, compared with what they’d be like were the referendum not until the autumn or 2017).
Furthermore, Tusk has given Cameron his chance this week; if the PM can’t grasp it and sell the draft to his EU colleagues then he’ll be second priority at best in March.
And if he’s going to change the dynamic of the debate in Britain, which has run heavily against him since the draft was first published, then not only does he need to sell it in full to his opposite numbers but he needs more on top: a mighty big ask, of him and of them.
The problem is that asking the EU and its members to agree to the document at the first sitting and as written sounds and feels dangerously like an ultimatum; it’s not the way things are done. The way things are done is to talk, give a little here, a little there, trade this for that and produce a compromise composite document some months down the line. To other members and to the EU itself, it’s not an urgent matter particularly when set next to the migrant crisis.
Except it should be, assuming that they’re interested in keeping Britain on board. The two polls released since the draft paper was published both showed swings in favour of Leave. To demand that Britain dilute further the ‘pretty thin gruel’ will simply push more of the public and more Conservative politicians into supporting exit, seemingly confirming the Leavers assertions that the EU is fundamentally unreformable and that Britain faces a hostile majority.
The way the dynamics of the campaign are going, there can be only one outcome: to add another instance to history whereby a former elite is left scratching its collective head and wondering ‘how did that happen?’. Maybe they could schedule the question for a future meeting.
David Herdson is a political analyst who writes a regular column on the Political Betting website and tweets at @DavidHerdson.