David Cameron must be wishing he had never gone down the road of trying to negotiate a different deal with the EU. The tactic was originally designed to make a “Remain” vote more likely; instead, it is serving to show how utterly resistant to reform the Brussels institutions are. Britain’s demands have been diluted and diluted; and yet it is proving hard to secure legally binding changes even in homeopathic quantities.
Ask yourself this. If the EU is so resistant to making concessions when its second largest economy is about to vote on withdrawal, when will it ever be amenable to change? If the UK should vote to stay in, how could it hope to be taken seriously in future? Having given its assent in a referendum, Britain would be deemed to have agreed to the EU’s declared aim of drawing all its members into a fiscal, economic, juridical, diplomatic, political and military merger.
When the PM first proposed a renegotiation followed by a referendum, in his Bloomberg speech at the beginning of 2013, he spoke of securing a different settlement with the EU, involving significant and, if necessary, unilateral repatriations of power. Frankly, what he proposed fell well short of what most Eurosceptics wanted; but he at least appeared to be asking for a relationship based on trade and co-operation rather than political amalgamation.
One by one, the PM’s declared aims have been dropped. He had promised to opt out of EU employment laws and social policies; to repatriate control of criminal justice; to curb the European Court; to disapply the Charter of Fundamental Rights; to recover control of who could settle in the UK. But, as the preliminary talks got underway, it became clear that he had changed tack. Instead of asking “What deal would best suit Britain?” David Cameron was asking “What can I be absolutely certain of securing, so that I can declare victory?”
To start with such an agenda, and yet still run into difficulties, is quite an achievement. When you’re asking for nothing – when you have abandoned the demand for a treaty change, which was the original reason for delaying the referendum – it is truly extraordinary to encounter resistance.
We’re seeing what we saw when Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed by 26 votes to two despite David Cameron’s loud and public opposition. The United Kingdom’s demand for something prompts some of the member states into opposing it on principle. Our influence is not zero; it is negative.
It’s true, of course, that Downing Street is playing a game of expectations management. Having abandoned the hope of binding changes, guaranteed by treaty, spin-doctors are sure to come back with something unanticipated, in the hope of dazzling press and public.
We know this is their plan, because Andrew Lansley unwittingly revealed it to a group of pro-EU lobbyists, unaware that his remarks were being annotated. Sure enough, we can see his tactics being followed to the letter: first the downplaying of expectations (you’ve got to admit, they’ve played a blinder with that); then the bogus row; then the final act of prestigiditation, the conjuring of some unexpected agreement which, precisely because it is unexpected, won’t be too closely scrutinised, and which will therefore be presented as a triumph.
What form might this prestigiditation take? One possibility is that the PM will swing back from the proposed moratorium on benefits to the idea of an “emergency brake” on the number of EU migrants. Another is that he will go for a Danish-style opt out on elements of EU integration, including citizenship.
The trouble is that neither of these things is remotely enforceable. Both will be struck down by the European Court of Justice. The Danish opt-out on citizenship has been disregarded no fewer than 79 times by the ECJ since it came into effect in 1992. Despite the promises that Danes were given – promises that were written into the treaties in binding form, and convinced them to reverse their original “No” to Maastricht – the supposed opt outs have been struck down repeatedly, on such issues as stripping Danish nationality from foreigners who had obtained it fraudulently, border control, and even which surnames Danes can use.
All that is left is what Downing Street, with breathtaking cynicism, once called “rebadging” the existing membership terms. Back in June, a Number 10 source revealed that changing the nomenclature might be enough to gull some critics: “This associate status thing… is a buzzword that helps keep the troops in line.”
Stand back and consider the whole renegotiation process. The PM naturally assumed – as most people did, to be fair – that the EU would be ready to make reasonable concessions in order to avoid losing a large member state. He has now found that it is utterly intractable. While it might be prepared to make optical alterations, it won’t give the “full-on treaty change” that ministers were assuring us would be a precondition for a deal as late as this year. It will do anything to keep us in – except change.
It is surely now obvious that we can’t get the kind of looser, semi-detached relationship we wanted from the inside. The Eurocrats won’t take us seriously until we vote to leave. Only then will the real bargaining begin.