Keep David Cameron’s renegotiation in perspective

Keep David Cameron’s renegotiation in perspective


DAVID CAMERON is in Brussels for the endgame of his great “renegotiation” of Britain’s membership of the EU. For over three years this deadline has loomed over the prime minister–never less so than in the frenetic, final weeks, during which Mr Cameron has concentrated on little else, shuttling round the continent pressing the flesh and testing the limits of the diplomatically achievable. About now the prime minister and EU leaders are sitting down to discuss his asks. The European Council will then return to the subject tomorrow morning (over an “English breakfast” or perhaps “brunch”, we are told). By lunchtime Mr Cameron will probably have a deal.

If many are treating this with portentous language, this is to be expected. Donald Tusk, the council president, seems as prone to this as the media hordes gathering to report the summit; “to be, or not to be together, that is the question”, he tweeted a fortnight ago on the publication of a draft deal. Today he hailed the “make or break summit”. And fair enough, one might think. Mr Cameron, along with Mr Tusk and Angela Merkel, have staked their credibility on a deal that the prime minister can sell to his party and British voters in the run up to the country’s in-out referendum.

Meanwhile some of their partners (France, the Poles and the Belgians, among others) mutter ominously about Britain seeking to cherry-pick the best bits of EU membership; of trying to dine à la carte instead of taking the menu du jour. If Mr Cameron is seen to have been too successful his renegotiation could embolden Eurosceptics (like the Danish People’s Party and Alternative für Deutschland), agitating for their governments to put on a similar display of brinksmanship.

The dramatic tension is heightened by the uncertainty that swirls about the details of the package they will emerge with tomorrow afternoon. Will Mr Cameron secure a commitment to treaty change enshrining curbs on migrant benefits? For how long may those curbs apply? How much regulatory wriggle room will the prime minister secure for the City of London? And perhaps the most sensitive question (and certainly the one closest to the hearts of Mr Cameron and George Osborne): will the “emergency brake” protecting non-eurozone members have real teeth, and be in Britain’s hands to pull?

But steady on, now. Mr Cameron’s renegotiation may have significant continental ramifications, particularly if it sets a precedent tempting other countries to follow (unsurprisingly, Mr Tusk and Mrs Merkel have been at pains to limit the opt-outs and concessions to areas esoteric to Britain). And the debates across the table in Brussels tonight and tomorrow morning will certainly illuminate the great tensions between different visions of Europe’s future. Yet what effect it will have domestically, on the great question of the summit–will Britain stay or leave–is less clear.

Whatever Mr Cameron comes back with tomorrow (he is expected to hold a cabinet meeting tomorrow afternoon, possibly followed by a broadcast to the nation confirming that the referendum will be on June 23rd), it stands no chance of persuading firm Eurosceptics to back membership. Likewise, a rubbish deal should do little to dissuade those already convinced that being in the EU is a good thing. Suggestions that Michael Gove, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the three big undecided beasts of the Tory Party, might be swayed by the precise details of the final renegotiation is, to borrow a term from the latter, an inverted pyramid of piffle.

So what the prime minister achieves in Brussels will be interesting and could affect the mood in his party. But at best it will provide him with a modestly useful, symbolic prop with which to coax half-interested swing voters to hold their noses and vote In. As factors influencing the outcome of the referendum go, it is perhaps somewhere in the second dozen; leagues below the state of the migrant crisis and the British economy when voters come to cast their ballots. Brexit is a massive geopolitical question. But do not mistake it with the much less significant, and only partially related, Brenegotiation.

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