Cameron's European headache starts now

Written by Steve Richards on 10 November 2015 in Opinion
As the course to the referendum is set, the problems for the prime minster, his party and the country become multi-layered

David Cameron’s proposed renegotiation with the rest of the EU is both ambitious and nowhere near ambitious enough.

In some respects Cameron seeks to formalise what has already happened in ways that will worry some EU members and not remotely reassure his more ardent Eurosceptic MPs. He hopes to cast in stone the UK’s longstanding position as a player with economic influence in the EU but outside the Euro.

Similarly the UK has railed against “ever closer union” for a long time and in the last parliament all the main parties agreed to hold a referendum if further powers were transferred to Brussels, virtually guaranteeing that no such powers would be switched away from Westminster.

Now he negotiates for formal recognition that “ever closer union” might be an objective of others, but not for the UK. Where he hopes for substantive change, most specifically in relation to restricting benefit claims for immigrants he hints at flexibility, acknowledging that other EU members will find these demands problematic.

On one level Cameron is justified in claiming that he aims high. As Tony Blair’s former EU adviser Roger Liddle points out in a new and forensically illuminating pamphlet ‘The Risk of Brexit’ other EU members would be well within their rights to resent the UK’s latest bout of stroppiness, refusing to join the Euro but demanding new rules to protect its influence, turning its back on the principle of ever closer union while asserting its right to be at the heart of all pivotal decision making.

Yet none of this stroppiness changes very much, which is partly why some Eurosceptic Tory MPs have been so dismissive about what they regard as lack of ambition.

Cameron’s ambitious and yet puny re-negotiation, the wariness of EU members and the dismissiveness of Tory MPs would not matter if it were not for the in/out referendum being staged at the end of the sequence. In this context the much reported dismissive reaction of the Tory MP, Jacob Rees Mogg, is more significant than it seems. Rees Mogg compared Cameron’s objectives unfavourably with Harold Wilson’s laughably cosmetic renegotiation in 1975.

The significance lies in the fact that the stakes are so much higher for Cameron in relation to his renegotiation than they were for Wilson.

As Wilson held talks with a conveniently much smaller EU he needed the most modest of outcomes and that is what he got. All he sought was cover to justify his own u turn, having voted against entry to the Common Market in 1973 along with most of his parliamentary party. 

Wilson was not seeking to persuade his party to back him. He knew those who were in the anti camp were beyond persuasion. The likes of Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore, senior cabinet ministers at the time, were not awaiting Wilson’s renegotiation before declaring their position. They were quite open they wanted out before Wilson had met a single EU leader.

The offer of a referendum kept his cabinet together, not the substance of the renegotiation. By the time the so-called re-negotiation was complete he did not have much of a task persuading the public and media either. At the start of the referendum campaign polls suggested a big majority wanted to stay in and the newspapers were nearly all cheerleaders for ‘yes’.

Cameron is in an entirely different position. Personally he needs no fig leaf as Wilson did. He has never opposed the UK’s membership of the EU as Wilson had done.

In contrast, Cameron is surrounded by cabinet ministers and other senior Tories who have said they will make up their minds depending on the outcome of his renegotiation. They include Theresa May, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and at one point the Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond. Boris Johnson says the same, as do a lot of Tory backbenchers.

Some of them are being disingenuous, but not all. With opinion polls suggesting a close outcome and some newspapers likely to campaign for withdrawal Cameron’s renegotiation needs to be substantial. Yet Jacob Rees Mogg is not alone in concluding that his objectives are less substantial than Wilson’s final renegotiation.

For Cameron this week marks an historic junction for two reasons. The first is the more obvious one that he has played his early hand. The broad objectives are confirmed.

The second relates to the heckle by a couple of anti-EU protestors while he was delivering a speech earlier this week, a more important intervention than it seemed. Suddenly Cameron was placed overtly on one side for the first time in a public arena, a leader facing a protestation from demonstrators who want to leave the EU.

His theoretical position is that he rules nothing out depending on the outcome of his renegotiation. Inadvertently a couple of protestors formalised his public role, an advocate for staying in.

As the course is set, the problems for him, his party and the country become multi-layered. Even if Cameron wins the referendum following a negotiation that brings little immediate practical change there will be calls for more reforms from those that lost and perhaps from a Labour leadership that campaigned reluctantly to stay in.

Five years after the 1975 referendum the Labour party was committed to pulling out of Europe. If he wins the referendum the battle over UK and Europe will resume within around ten seconds. If he loses there will be tumultuous change beginning with his own resignation.

We will never know what would have happened to him, his party and UKIP if Cameron had not offered the referendum in the last parliament. I can understand why he felt he had no choice but to make the move. But in the end referendums are never a price worth paying as Cameron, I suspect, is already discovering.



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