TO THE headline writers, the case is clear cut: David Cameron is at best at loggerheads with his party on Europe, and at worst selling them out. Backbench MPs are demanding that the UK must repatriate powers from Brussels and hold a referendum, but the Prime Minister dismisses such options, stressing that the most important thing for Britain is to get the Eurozone working again. Even the most moderately eurosceptic Tory MPs and commentators fear that Dave is passing up an historic opportunity to turn the tide on Europe. One headline put it: “Winston Churchill made history, but Cameron never will.” Certainly, the summit over the next couple of days could determine how Cameron’s first term as prime minister is seen. But there are three reasons for thinking that this Punch’n’Judy narrative is too simplistic, and Cameron could still deliver the goods.
First, there is clear expectations management going on as the Prime Minster crosses the channel. Under-promise and over-deliver is the oldest trick in the spin-meisters’ handbook. Before every European summit, Prime Ministers say things are very difficult, but then come back pulling rabbits out of hats that allows them to declare a triumph.
Second, there is the very credible threat that the 17 Eurozone countries might decide to go for an intergovernmental agreement, in which the UK will have no say, rather than a full EU treaty change, which gives the UK a veto. The one thing that would guarantee they would avoid giving the UK a veto is if the Prime Minister gave in to calls for a referendum, or started drawing red lines in the sand with unacceptable demands. France and Germany know that the British would not vote for the EU in any referendum (even the French, Dutch and Irish voted no), and so there is no point in negotiating a treaty that would trigger one. In fact, the best negotiating tactic for the Prime Minister is to go in sounding all reasonable, luring the EU into a set of full-blown treaty negotiations, and then when we have gone down past the point of no return, make the real red-line demands. Revealing our national hand at this stage would be utterly self-defeating.
Third, the prime minister may publicly denounce the noisy eurosceptics, but actually the more noise they make, the stronger his hand is in Brussels. Behind closed doors, European leaders spend a many hours explaining their domestic political situation to each other, and they all know they have to compromise to make whatever the deal is saleable back home. They are in it together, and the enemies are their own political parties and the public. It means Cameron can play the “good cop” in Brussels, apologising for the unfortunate fact that without some real red meat, he won’t get it past those “bad cop” nutters in his party. You can be sure he has mentioned his massive backbench rebellion on an EU referendum more than once to Merkel and Sarkozy.
Take all this together, and there is still a chance that Cameron might come back with some goodies from Brussels. We certainly need it. The case for the UK to have powers to protect financial services from the damaging barrage of EU regulation is overwhelming.
Anthony Browne is former director of Policy Exchange: firstname.lastname@example.org