Cameron may yet win his gamble on the EU

This morning the British Prime Minister David Cameron gave his long awaited speech on the European Union. I didn’t listen to it, or read it, so you won’t get any light on the nuances of his argument here. I’m interested in the political dynamics, which, as usual, do not depend on exactly what he said. From the BBC report his speech was fairly much as the last two weeks’ briefing had suggested. We wants to “renegotiate” Britain’s terms of membership, and then offer the British public an in/out referendum, after the next General Election, by the end of 2017. Mr Cameron’s political reputation is mixed. He showed brilliant footwork when he first took over leadership of the Conservative Party, but rather fluffed the 2010 General Election with his incomprehensible idea of the “the Big Society”. He restored his reputation with the assured manner in which he put together the Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. After that he seemed lack vision and grasp. Will today’s move restore his reputation? It might.

A couple of weeks ago I thought he was onto a hiding to nothing, and in the process of leading his party to defeat at the next election, set for 2015. Various shades of Euroscepticism seem to define the rank and file of the Conservative Party, right up to Parliamentary level. It seems impossible to satisfy them. On the other hand assorted Europhiles (in deed rather than word in most cases) amongst the deeply conservative British establishment don’t want to rock the boat.  He risks isolation and an almighty mess. His own view seems to be that the UK is better off inside the EU, but it would be really nice if its institutions were less intrusive.

But Mr Cameron has two things going for him. First is that his personal view on the matter probably represents what most of the British public thinks: a very grumpy “well yes I suppose so” to the EU. From this he should be able to build a bond of trust, unlike other participants in the debate, whose firm views one way or the other are not shared by the public. And second, Mr Cameron is a vital swing voter in the debate. It is highly unlikely that either side can win a referendum without his support. The smart thing for the various players here and abroad is to build bridges with him, rather than try to isolate and vilify him. This could put him into the driving seat.

Things are now starting to get very interesting.  In spite of the very long time they have been given to develop a party line, the Labour opposition is completely at sea. They are trying to paint a picture of a PM beholden to his backbenchers, and who, by creating uncertainty, is making things worse for the national interest. This is desperately unconvincing.  The British public probably rather agree with what their PM is saying, while Labour are merely offering obfuscation and procrastination.  Uncertainty over Britain’s future in the EU is already a fact of life.

Meanwhile, those who are in favour of the UK staying in the EU are at long last starting to stir. Their silence to date has been one of the main frustrations of the public discussion so far. The Eurosceptics have had the field pretty much to themselves, unchallenged. What these EU supporters – from outside and inside the country – have to say is pretty ugly, it has to be said. They aren’t trying to sell the EU as a positive vision. They are stoking fears about what life would be like outside. Real Europhiles, like me, really dislike this negative stuff, a lot of which is intellectually unconvincing. But elections are won on the ugly stuff – just look at the 2011 referendum on a fairly minor tweak to Britian’s electoral system, which was portrayed as the end to life as we know it. The Eurosceptic arguments are being given much greater scrutiny, and many will wilt.

The big problem for Mr Cameron is how the “renegotiation” will work out.  I use quotation marks because ever since Harold Wilson used it in the 1970s (in my formative political years) I have felt it to be an sham concept, used by armchair commentators. Either you enter into an honest negotiation about matters that need fixing, or you are going back on your promises; you should be honest about which it is. The difficulty is that our existing treaty terms are a carefully balanced whole, and if you change one bit it unbalances others.  The favourite Eurosceptic idea of opting out of the social standards bits we don’t like, and then use this to give British businesses a competitive edge over their foreign rivals, has a rather obvious flaw as a negotiating stance.  What’s in it for them?  The country’s European partners would mainly rather have us in than out, and we do have a trade deficit with them, but this does not add up to a strong negotiating position. Mr Cameron might simply do what Mr Wilson did: get a few token concessions and try to big them up. That would be risky for Mr Cameron’s reputation, though he might still win.

But Mr Cameron has set quite a long time frame for his negotiation. In that time it is quite likely that the EU will want to alter its treaties to make the Eurozone more stable. Under Britain’s “referendum lock” legislation this could trigger the need for approval by referendum in the UK anyway. If Mr Cameron can tie these treaty changes into his “renegotiation”, and then use his in/out referendum to endorse it as a package, then he does have something to negotiate with – and can paint himself as doing the EU a favour. The transfer of powers between EU institutions and the UK might actually be two-way traffic. If he pulls that stunt off, his political legacy will be secure, in my book anyway.