So David Cameron’s long-trailed EU speech is due to be held on 15th January. I cannot remember any speech by a UK Prime Minister being trailed so far in advance, prompting Cameron himself to say “This is a tantric approach to policy-making. It’ll be even better when it does eventually come”.
So then, if it’s going to be so good, what’s actually going to end up in this speech?
I started thinking more about this earlier today thanks to this debate on Twitter with Philip Oltermann and Hopi Sen. Two news pieces – the latter paragraphs of this in the Independent by John Rentoul, and this Nucleus piece by Peter Wilding, had drawn the attention of Philip and Hopi.
I was also struck by this tweet by Philip Collins from The Times who claims Cameron has nothing to say in the speech – that’s why it’s taking so long. The Collins piece is behind the paywall so I can’t delve further, but I do not agree with the premise – there are plenty of things he could say. The question is whether he should say them.
An in-out EU referendum?
This is the question on which Cameron’s speech is going to be judged. If he obfuscates on this point, then Philip Collins was right – there was probably nothing of real substance that Cameron had to say. But I cannot see how, in the medium term, Cameron can really avoid committing the Tory party to an in-out referendum. It is not because Cameron would want such a vote, and I think he genuinely fears splitting his party, and what the consequences of a No would be. It is more that Cameron has no killer argument against such a referendum. He is not opposed to direct democracy per se, he has committed the UK to a referendum lock for any future transfer of powers to the EU, so why hold out against such a plebiscite? The ‘everything else is more important’ line doesn’t hold water.
Beyond that, the question will then be on timing (he would surely advocate after 2015, not before), the exact nature of the question to be posed, how this relates to any new EU treaty…
Of course if Cameron does dither on the referendum question, he could propose some half-way solution – a referendum on any new EU Treaty for example. But then he would need to be clear what a No would mean in such a vote.
A question that has always been at the back of my mind is whether, mindful that an in-out referendum could lead to an Out result, whether Cameron would seek to split the difference and throw a third option onto the referendum ballot paper. This third option would be ‘renegotiate’, and would almost certainly win. The traditional way of looking at this is the sort of stuff Fresh Start has been doing – find some policy areas could the UK opt out of or renegotiate. But that prompts a further question – why would any other EU Member States allow the UK to do that?
So here then we come to the assertions in the Wilding piece, and the supposed positive noises from Berlin in the Rentoul piece.
The gist of this is that Cameron seems to think he has a reasonable relationship with Merkel, and that it would not be in Merkel’s interest for the UK to leave the European Union. It is as if Cameron thinks he has some sort of leverage as a result, and he is ready to use it. Today’s FAZ interview with German Finance Minister Schäuble (in German) would however call this into question – Schäuble wants Britain to stay in the EU, but cautions against blackmail from the UK (Erpressen is the word he uses).
Then there are the further assertions from Wilding that renegotiation itself could be reinterpreted, meaning a renegotiation of the balance of powers between the EU institutions rather than a renegotiation of UK-EU relations – in order to make the EU more intergovernmental, and limiting the power of the Commission and the European Parliament. This would require the Commission to sanction a reduction of its role, and Wilding also raises the prospect of giving Member States powers to sack the Commission (only the EP can censure the Commission in the current treaty) – this latter demand strikes me as being of little use as appointment of the Commission in the first place is more in the hands of the Member States than the EP. Wilding also says 15th January will be the date for new bilaterals between UK Ministers and their German counterparts.
Sorry, but on either side I just do not buy this.
If I were Daniel Hannan or Bill Cash I would be furious at the attempt to put a new spin on renegotiation. If Wilding’s assertions are indeed what Cameron proposes, I cannot see Tory EU-sceptics being willing to accept that the EU institutions have the same powers, only that those powers are wielded differently between the institutions.
Further, the idea that the European Commission (or the European Parliament) is ready to give up power is fanciful. Like any institution it guards the powers it has, and if the right to initiate legislation were to be called into question there would be tumult in Brussels, not least from smaller EU member states who rely on the Commission to protect them from larger Member States. From a pro-EU perspective – my own, or the position of someone like Guido Westerwelle or Radek Sikorski – such proposals would be a backward step as they would prevent efforts to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU itself.
Cameron is right to think that there is little love lost between Berlin and the Commission, and also that the Franco-German relationship is at a low ebb just now. But conversely no-one makes the running on a new institutional arrangement for the European Union just by announcing it out of the blue. If Cameron does that, and, as will be almost inevitable, his plans do not find wider favour, then his whole exercise will have come to nothing. Cameron would also do well to learn from December 2011, when proposals raised at the last minute at the EU summit did not gain favour with other Member States.
To put it another way, if whatever Cameron proposes is to find favour in Berlin, then it will not find favour on his own backbenches, and vice versa. Cameron has to make up his mind – keep his supposed European allies, or keep his party faithful. So which is it going to be?