The news broke recently that the EU was close to making David Cameron an offer regarding his demands for a reformed EU. Cameron has always worn his attitudes towards Europe on his sleeve, last week in a speech to the world economic forum he referred to Britain’s relationship with the EU as being “bound up in the European continent, of which we are an important part.” At times it seems like those who use language of British patriotism can’t talk about the EU without reminding ourselves of our own importance. From my own perspective however, Cameron’s comments on the EU and the demands he’s pushing for aren’t just grandstanding or trying to curry some kind of patriotic support. Cameron’s demands have more to do with his domestic situation and personal reputation than the wider continent. I believe that Cameron’s primary focus isn’t securing a better deal for Britain within the EU, nor is it leaving. It’s making himself unassailable whatever the outcome.
It would make sense to start with Cameron’s demands. Over the past few months he has been repeating the phrase “better deal for Britain.” He talked in this kind of language in his WEC speech, using the phrase “best possible future for Britain.” The callous nature of his demands, coming at a time when the EU has troubles enough, has been pointed out by a few commentators - as Joris Luyendijk put it, “why merely kick a man while he’s down if you can go through his wallet too?” It does look as though Cameron is pushing for preferential treatment in the EU and threatening to leave if his demands are not met. In other words, clawing for special rules and exemptions in exactly the kind of way that’s been mocked by some European commentators including the German answer to the Daily Show - his four main demands are all about making Britain less involved in Europe politically while benefiting financially.
Right at the top of the list are the demands for protection of the single market for Britain and other non-euro countries, and reducing red tape to improve competitiveness. Luyendijk sums this up as Britain wanting to maintain the transactional nature of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Britain would rather benefit financially from membership of the EU but maintain it’s distance politically. Britain is after all not a part of mainland Europe. Britain’s experience of the formative years of the EU and were different to the rest of Europe and Britain was initially denied membership of the European Economic Community. This apparent desire for political distance is certainly backed up by Cameron’s third demand; the exemption of Britain from “ever closer union,” the statement from the treaty of Rome that has caused so much contention. This comes across as a bone thrown to Eurosceptics as a lot of these demands have been described as negotiable and the statement is vague enough that governments can interpret “ever closer union” however they like. The fourth point, which it now seems the EU may be willing to concede is a four year wait before EU migrants can begin receiving benefits. This has been criticized, not least by the Centre for European Reform who point out that it is contrary to EU rules. This demand could be brought before the European Court as well since denying benefits to workers based on their migration status is discriminatory. Asking for special treatment would be nothing new for the British government but the reasoning behind these demands goes further than grasping.
Cameron’s motivation for pushing for these reforms have more domestic significance. It’s been strange seeing which political figures have been pointing this out, one of the more interesting interviews I heard recently was with Bernard Jenkin MP, a Tory backbencher and anti-EU campaigner. He unambiguously said that these demands were a distraction and a face-saving measure for Cameron so that he can tell the public what a great negotiator he is. He was talking from euro skeptic position and said he didn’t want the public to be fooled into thinking the EU could be reformed. Even from the other side, the “despite the EU’s problems it’s still a net positive” side, Cameron’s strategy could be seen as pre-emptive face saving.
I don’t doubt that Cameron is at least somewhat sure that these reforms will have a positive effect on the country; he is after all, spectacularly good at staying on message. Whether he’s right is debatable but right or not Cameron is trying to make it look like he’s the reasonable, statesmanlike one whatever the outcome of the referendum. If the demands, or whatever settlement he wrangles out of bored EU leaders, are met he hopes to come across as the master negotiator who can cut through the in/out dichotomy to find a beneficial compromise. On the other hand, if they are rejected he can confidently turn against the EU citing his demands as proof of their unreasonableness. I’m sure Cameron would prefer Britain to remain in the EU; we get too much out of it financially and politically but the argument surrounding our possible exit is a good place to improve one’s own standing.
But where could this leave the referendum? A full range of discussions on what an exit or an EU operating under the reforms Cameron wants is for another time. There are all kinds of potential outcomes all over the spectrum of probability ranging from a fresh Scottish independence referendum and the subsequent breaking of the union, something I’m sure Cameron would prefer to avoid, as well as financial problems, here and in Europe. There is also an opposing view, put forward by those in favour of an exit, that there will be a new wave of economic prosperity and a resurgence of British global power. It is certainly the case that these demands won’t be well received by major EU advocates. Despite Angela Merkel’s favourable stance towards competitiveness, the subversion of one of the EU’s founding principles can’t be looked on too kindly.
The difference in response to the refugee crisis shows some divisions among the European leadership. The British strategy is that of financial aid to the region and the acceptance of a conciliatory amount of people from camps in Syria while mainland Europe deals with the majority of people leaving the warzone. Given this discrepancy the climate within the EU is not a cosy one. I doubt Cameron is looking at EU relations with a long-term view however. The effect of Cameron’s demands will be felt up to the day of the referendum and no further, whatever the outcome. These demands are after all, a way for Cameron to vindicate whatever position he eventually comes down on. Luyendijk was right that EU leaders should put the screws to Britain to stop them using the EU’s shaky state to bully it into granting us special favours. They should also be aware that Cameron is willing to use the EU as a domestic political ploy and respond to that however they see fit.
Either way, the British public gets to vote on whether we want to stay in the EU or go through what may well be a tangled drama of an exit next year. We have yet to see whether David Cameron’s official line will be one in favour of exiting an unreasonable EU or crowing about the good deal he got us. Either way, he’ll be able to portray himself as the reasonable one, not the Prime Minister who failed to stand up to the bullying EU leaders or the short-sighted opportunist who made the country worse off by facilitating our exit from a beneficial union.