Catastrophic tactical error by Cameron

British prime minister David Cameron with newly elected Conservative MPs, at the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London.

John O’Brennan and Mary C Murphy look at the dilemma that David Cameron’s pledge to hold an ‘in-out’ referendum on Britains membership of the EU has created for himself and for the union.   

The European Union has spent most of the last decade grappling with one crisis after another.

From the difficult birth of the Constitutional Treaty (later restyled the Lisbon Treaty) to the protracted challenge of steadying the eurozone ship, and more recently, dealing with Russian aggrandisement in Ukraine and the dramatic problems created by the implosion of Libya, the EU has struggled to assert the case for a supranational governance order which many EU citizens see as increasingly illegitimate.

Now, just as the eurozone seems to be stabilising (even the threat of ‘Grexit’ is now much less of a concern) and economic growth is returning across the continent, the outcome of the UK general election has thrown the EU into another paroxysm of existential angst.

A renewed, deeper mandate for the Conservative Party, and prime minister David Cameron, one which will see the Tories govern alone until 2020, threatens to tear the European construction apart: A full-blown constitutional row once again looks set to dominate EU politics, as it did in earlier periods of European integration.

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What demands will Cameron make of other EU leaders? And what are the chances of such an ‘in-out’ referendum succeeding?

The first point of significance is to understand the make-up of the new UK cabinet. Absent the moderating influence of the Europhile Liberal Democrats, we now have a ‘full-blooded’ Tory administration in office. And where once Tory cabinets demonstrated substantive balance between pro- and sceptical ministers, the new Cameron Cabinet contains no-one of the calibre of Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine who consistently made the case for a practical and rational UK embrace of the EU during the Thatcher and Major premierships.

Instead, the cabinet is loaded with extreme eurosceptics such as the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who has said that he would like to see the UK leave the EU. Similarly, defence secretary Michael Fallon and home secretary Theresa May all converge around the more radical pole of ‘EU exit’.

The second important point is the position of the media. While Europe hardly featured in the election campaign, the Tory press remains implacably opposed to EU membership and will relentlessly press for withdrawal.

Emboldened by the surprise Tory victory and determined to take Britain out of Europe, they will pose a major challenge to any attempts by Cameron and Osborne to secure a pro-EU vote.

The broader truth is that British discourse on Europe has been completely poisoned over almost three decades, beginning with Thatcher’s infamous Bruges Speech in 1988, continuing through the Tories fratricidal rows about ratification of the Maastricht Treaty during John Major’s premiership, from the regular demonisation of European Commission presidents to the routine mischaracterisation of EU regulations as “diktats from Brussels”.

Tony Blair came to power as the self-proclaimed ‘”most European prime minister ever” and yet, very quickly he grew disillusioned with the modalities of EU summitry and retreated to defending ‘red lines’ and a ‘them and us’ narrative that could hardly be distinguished from that of his predecessors.

He rarely challenged the sometimes outrageous misrepresentations of EU governance on the front pages of the right-wing Daily Express, the Daily Mail, or The Sun. Blair’s decision to throw in his lot with George W Bush in invading Iraq delivered a final blow to Labour’s European credentials and led to a deep chasm with France and Germany.

Now Cameron finds himself in an impossible position. Having promised his rebellious backbenchers an ‘in-out’ referendum, he must engage with colleagues across 27 other EU member state capitals in order to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership.

The simple truth is that Cameron made a catastrophic tactical error in January 2013, asserting that he would put the question of Britain’s membership of the EU to a referendum, on the basis of a putative renegotiation of the terms of membership.

The EU is both an intergovernmental and supranational body, and EU treaties have proved painstakingly difficult to negotiate. The idea that parts of the treaties could be reopened selectively to tackle the grievances of individual member states could never be a runner.

If it were to happen for the UK, it would trigger an avalanche of similar requests from other member states. Poland could well ask for an adjustment to the voting weights within the Council of Ministers, for example. Or Malta might ask for derogations from EU environmental law. Italy might request another European Commissioner.

If Tory eurosceptics succeed in formulating demands which Cameron then takes to Brussels as a ‘red line’ item for negotiation, then why shouldn’t interest groups or political parties in other EU states bring fresh demands to their governments to renegotiate? The convulsions caused by the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005 are proof enough of how impossible it is to reopen agreed EU ‘bargains’.

Moreover, Cameron’s case for renegotiation has been completely demolished by a report from the House of Lords, chaired by a Conservative peer, Timothy Boswell. The so-called ‘balance of competences’ review, extolled by William Hague in 2012 as “the most extensive analysis of UK membership of the EU ever undertaken”, found no evidence of excessive EU interference in UK economic, social, or political life.

In fact, it found that there wasn’t a single policy area where a transfer of powers back from Brussels could be justified. The report was promptly buried by the government when it appeared earlier this year.

Cameron will have to decide what he wants and put those demands to EU colleagues. It is unlikely they will surface before a key European Council summit in Brussels on June 21.

Angela Merkel and Jean Claude Juncker have made it perfectly clear that there will be no renegotiation of EU freedom of movement rules. Neither do they want to think about anything other than tinkering with so-called ‘secondary legislation’ governing social security and welfare benefits for EU citizens who choose to live in member states other than their own. The tragedy for the UK is that, just when it matters most, its political capital across the EU is virtually non-existent.

Over the past five years, the UK has gradually disengaged from the day-to-day activity which characterises institutional life in Brussels. There are few allies left to call on in the effort to ‘sell’ the renegotiation to peer states in the European Council. For Cameron, the glow from an unexpected election victory may not last long.

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