David Cameron has asserted that his main aim in the renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU is about reassessing our position in a way that makes continued membership desirable. Based on his recent letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, however, his true aim seems to be to convince the British public that he’s working towards significant changes while simultaneously placating other European leaders by emphasising the continuities in his proposed reforms.
In his letter, Cameron roughly outlines four reforms for Britain’s relationship with the EU: a reduction of in-work benefits for EU migrants, increased competitiveness in the market, protection of the single market for non-Euro members, and an opt-out from “ever-closer” union. In response, Bernard Jenkin, the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, asked: “Is that it?”, and many other Eurosceptics have accused Cameron of being unambitious. Independent of my views of a possible British exit, I also take issue with the content of
Cameron’s letter. Cameron is attempting to appear to make radical reforms – when in reality very little will be changed – in order to convince the British public, and his own MPs, to vote against leaving the EU. He wants to present the Conservative Party as united behind membership of a reformed EU, and this requires convincing his party and the public that the EU really will be reformed in some significant way.
The reason Cameron can only ever appear to make radical reforms is that other EU leaders are highly reluctant to make significant changes in the areas he demands. Formal recognition that Britain is separate from the Eurozone and a small concession on migrant benefits is likely to be about as much as Cameron can, and most likely does, achieve. His emphasis on there being room for negotiation strongly suggests that he has anticipated the response of the European Commission that some of his reforms are considered “highly problematic”. Particular issue was taken with his proposed migration law reforms, as freedom of movement is considered one of the central principles upon which the EU was founded. Tusk himself is a former Polish prime minister and has a strong interest in the ability of workers from eastern Europe to work and receive their fair share of state benefits in other European countries.
It could be that Cameron’s strategy will pay off and he will both reach an agreement with European leaders and convince the public that that agreement makes continued EU membership worthwhile. However, there is a definite risk that he has miscalculated and will instead be seen by the public to have reneged on his bold reformation agenda. In turning his taskinto a “mission possible” he has made it much more difficult. He could alienate many voters who were swayed by his argument that Britain should stay in a reformed EU, but now see that the word “reformed” was most likely an overstatement. In attempting to strengthen the “in” campaign, Cameron may in fact have weakened it by highlighting the inadequacy of his demands. Of course, he has previously claimed that if he does not achieve reform he will campaign against remaining in the EU. I am dubious about whether this is really the case, however, considering the general unpopularity of U-turns in politics and the amount of effort Cameron has already invested in trying to unite the Conservative Party behind membership. It remains to be seen whether appearances or reality will matter most in the upcoming referendum, and therefore whether or not Cameron will prevail.
IMAGE/ Thijs ter Haar