This Thursday David Cameron arrives in Brussels for one of the defining meetings of his premiership. The European council is set for a full discussion of his demands for a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. His reputation in history almost certainly depends on the outcome.
Will he be remembered as the prime minister who, through a mix of weakness and opportunism, conceded a policy of renegotiation and referendum, on which he then proved unable to deliver a successful outcome? For a failure to keep Britain in Europe could well have grave consequences for the British economy, Britain’s position in the world and the very existence of our United Kingdom itself.
Or will he pull off a remarkable triumph of defeating British anti-Europeanism, but one that will come for him at a high political price. For it means standing up to the Europhobic press barons who have been in part the authors of his previous electoral successes. It means confronting the hysteria of the ideological anti-Europeans in his own party who for 30 years have been a source of division and discontent. It also means boldness in taking on the United Kingdom Independence party populists on the issue that for their core activists is their raison d’être. And by summoning up the courage to do all these things, will he reaffirm Britain’s place in the EU for at least a generation to come?
The stakes could not be higher. Defeating Ed Miliband was for him tough and gruelling. However, the challenge on Europe is in a quite different league. In a way he never intended, on an issue he never really cared about, Europe has become existential to his personal reputation in history. It may not quite be a choice between being seen in history as at one end of the spectrum, Winston Churchill standing alone against Nazi tyranny, or at the other, Lord North losing the north American colonies, but it come pretty high in historical risk. If Cameron’s Europe gamble goes wrong, it would rank since the end of the second world war as the greatest foreign policy disaster to befall our nation and isolate its influence since Anthony Eden’s Suez. And it would also rank as the largest self-inflicted economic catastrophe in terms of business confidence and investment, jobs and growth since Edward Heath’s three-day week.
As Cameron arrives in Brussels, the anti-European Tories are already burnishing their narrative of betrayal. Today’s report by the Europe committee of the House of Commons chaired by Bill Cash and dominated by Eurosceptics (not all Conservatives, it has to be said) is an attempt to set the battle-lines on the Eurosceptic side of the argument. Their case is that Cameron is not even trying to achieve the fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Europe that he promised. No ‘full-on’ treaty change is in prospect. There will be no major repatriation of powers from Brussels to Britain. Instead, in their view the four ‘baskets’ into which Cameron placed his renegotiation demands in his letter last month to Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, will not change much, and certainly nothing fundamental in the UK-EU relationship. Even the controversial demands to curb in-work benefits for EU citizens working in Britain would make little practical difference to actual migrant flows – and for this judgement, the Eurosceptics can claim in support the considered view of the Office of Budget Responsibility. However for the hardline Eurosceptics on the Conservative backbenches, their obsession, as revealed in Cash’s report, is fundamental treaty change that repatriates powers and gives the British parliament the right to veto EU laws. The dishonesty of some of them is in not admitting that these demands are wholly incompatible with the essence of EU membership which is based on a pooling of sovereignty in policy areas where the member states have agreed their national interests are better served by acting together.
But for Cameron the ability to claim success in his renegotiation is a sine qua non of his referendum strategy. With the Conservative party it is essential to the task of persuading middle-ground (and careerist) Tory members of parliament that they can face their constituency associations with good conscience that they are now persuaded that on balance remaining in the EU is a vital national interest, even if they won their original constituency selection on the back of a tide of Eurosceptic emotion! And it also matters with a vital section of the electorate who would be more likely to back a ‘reformed Europe’ rather than the status quo.
Labour pro-Europeans have to allow Cameron a certain amount of leeway on these claims. Yes, he will have gained a stronger commitment from our partners to prioritise competitiveness – the single market, better regulation, free trade deals. Yes, he will have enhanced the role of national parliaments. Yes, he will have secured in-principle safeguards that euro ‘ins’ will not discriminate against euro ‘outs’. Yes, he will succeed on removing Britain from the commitment to ‘ever closer union’ though legal opinion is virtually unanimous (as set out in the Cash report) that this will have little practical effect. And, yes, the benefit regime for EU migrant workers will have been tightened up to prevent abuses.
Where Labour has to draw a line is if Cameron continues to misread the strength of his negotiating position in Brussels and makes blustering demands that our partners simply will not accept under threat. He is already alleged to have unwisely said that if he does not get what he wants he would lead the Leave campaign.
This is no time for posturing replays of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘ I want my money back’ performances with our European partners in the 1980s. For a start there was some justice in the argument thatBritain’s budgetary contributions in the early 1980s were then unfair, which in their hearts our partners knew was right. Even then, it took four years to finalise a solution, and, as many now forget, as soon as the infamous ‘rebate’ was agreed, the European council endorsed Jacques Delors’ proposal to double the size of the EU structural funds, which meant that Britain lost out in a higher British net overall contribution at same time as we got some money back through our rebate.
If Cameron wants to succeed in his renegotiation and then win the referendum, he must stop raising unrealistic expectations and start making hard realistic arguments about why our EU membership remains strongly in the national interest. He needs to draw a line under the renegotiation as soon as possible and allow the task of electoral persuasion to begin.
The best outcome in Brussels this week would not be a Cameron-induced row and walkout, but an in-principle heads of agreement on the main issues Cameron has raised with a commitment to sign a detailed legal text in late January or February. At some stage he has to face the anger and derision of the Cashes of this world. I humbly suggest he gets this out of the way as soon as possible and courageously takes the case for continued membership direct to the British people.
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