Cameron’s EU dilemma

By Simon Jennings

Recently, David Cameron formally announced his plans to renegotiate Britain’s position within the European Union ahead of the intended referendum. In short, Cameron’s demands focus around four key areas: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. Provided these conditions are met, the Prime Minister’s stated aim is to campaign “heart and soul” to keep Britain within the European Union. Yet, failing this, Cameron has alluded to the possibility of a Brexit, stating that he will “rule nothing out” and that he has no “emotional attachment” towards the EU.

Consequently, Cameron is, as many commentators have observed, walking a political tightrope. On the one hand, demanding too much risks alienating the very institution that he hopes to reform. Being too timid however may ultimately make him culpable of missing a golden opportunity for the British people.

Essentially, he must find a balance whereby his proposals to reform Britain’s relationship with Brussels are regarded as sufficiently substantial by a sceptical British electorate, yet are still modest enough for the rest of Europe to accept. It is this pursuit of balance that has caused some Eurosceptics to suggest that Cameron is throwing away a historic chance to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership.

There is no denying that in diplomatic terms, the UK government’s foundational position reflects a degree of realism about the challenges ahead. They are likely to accept that two fundamental values remain enshrined within the EU: the free movement of labour and the rejection of discrimination on the basis of nationality.

In doing so, they have drawn the ire of some Conservative MPs who have described his proposals variously as “thin gruel” and “disappointingly unambitious”. These critics suggest that Cameron’s reforms are trivial and do not amount to a debate for fundamental change. Indeed, some might have reasonably expected greater emphasis to be placed on areas where there is great need for reform, such as the repatriation of fishing rights, a reduction in contributions and an end to open borders.

Some political commentators have cynically suggested that Cameron’s proposed reforms are perhaps attributed to his primary concern of being perceived as victorious in the negotiation process as opposed to actually obtaining a tangible change for the UK. For instance, Cameron has placed great emphasis on the need to increase competitiveness in the UK by reducing the burden of bureaucracy and regulation. However, the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has already stated that there are legislative plans for 2016 to reduce red tape under the “Work Programme 2016 and the Better Regulation Package”.

An additional complication comes from the disproportionate popularity of the EU project within an already secessionist Scotland. Recent polling suggests that just under two thirds of Scots want to stay in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon foresees that the UK withdrawing from the EU will give rise to “unstoppable” public demand for Scottish independence. Many within the party and indeed the country as a whole would be disappointed if Cameron failed to negotiate a meaningful change for Britain. The unity of the United Kingdom and the Conservative Party may well depend upon it.

Ultimately, Cameron’s aim is to simultaneously accomplish a tactical retreat from the worst excesses of European integration and to quell dissent among Eurosceptics within his own ranks, whilst still offering his European counterparts a compromise that they can accept. This is undoubtedly a difficult balancing act and his success may well be measured more in terms of public perception than in tangible improvements to the terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe. While critics have derided his lack of ambition, Cameron is clearly enough of a pragmatist to realise that unilaterally reneging on the fundamental principles of free movement and non-discrimination is politically impossible. Instead, his current policy of pairing modest demands with robust domestic rhetoric appears most likely to achieve his desired outcome.