AFTER months of vague talk about “renegotiating” Britain’s EU membership and a flurry of visits to European capitals by the prime minister and his lieutenants, the moment had come. The prime minister would set out the terms of the deal he hopes to secure in Brussels next month as a letter describing them winged its way to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. In the event, his speech at Chatham House this morning revealed very little not already known. Mr Cameron wants to formalise the EU as a multi-currency union (protecting non-euro countries like Britain), terminate its symbolic commitment to ever-closer union, make it more competitive and require new migrants to spend four years contributing to the Exchequer before they have a right to draw benefits.
At the heart of the speech was a paradox consequent to political choices made by the prime minister almost three years ago, as he announced at Bloomberg’s London headquarters that he would reshape Britain’s membership of the EU and put the result to a referendum by 2017. Mr Cameron and his advisers believed—still believe—that this was essential to meeting British voters (particularly the 150 or so of them who sit on the Conservative Party benches and really dislike the EU) half-way: conceding that the union is deeply flawed by making a prime ministerial endorsement for the In campaign contingent on change.
I am not convinced that this was necessary. Naturally, the prime minister has to strike a balance between pleasing his Eurosceptic backbenchers (especially the roughly 100 MPs broadly pro-Brexit but outside the inner core of about 30 die-hard Eurosceptics) and confronting them with the basically positive reality of Britain’s EU membership. But his handling of the subject has tended to lean heavily towards the former of these imperatives; making concessions that his MPs and their allies in the media bank then promptly ignore; meeting them a quarter of the way, as it were. A more robust stance would have been to admit that Mr Cameron would always support an In vote—which is the truth of the matter, because even before any “renegotiation” membership is overall better than Brexit—but that he would nonetheless enact a rolling programme of reforms to take place before and after the vote.
Instead the prime minister must now secure a deal that he can credibly claim tips the balance between staying and leaving. That he is trying to do so in a rush and at a time when even Britain’s reformist allies are distracted makes this especially difficult. Hence the paradox: Mr Cameron’s speech portrayed EU membership as essential (he described it as a guarantor of the country’s security) yet refused to rule out ditching it and pointed to a modest and patchy list of asks (none of them concerning security, as Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform notes) that purportedly make the difference. To take it at face value is thus a mistake. It does not add up and was never likely to.
That said, Mr Cameron played his self-inflicted bad hand well. Having committed himself to a phoney renegotiation, he played out the charade with brio, characterising Britain as a country of cool heads and controlled passions—“natural debunkers” as he only somewhat oddly put it—and himself as its epitome: a rational, moderate type with neither the federal zeal of Europe’s integrationist intellectuals nor the spittle-flecking fury of Britain’s most isolationist Europhobes. He tacitly conceded that he would back membership, come what may; setting out a list of demands variously symbolic and uncontentious and producing a fairly gutsy case for an In vote. Mr Cameron’s most troublesome ask, the four-year benefit freeze, he downgraded from a firm request to an indication of the sort of arrangement he would like to reach. The six-page letter to Mr Tusk, published shortly after the speech, added few details but for a list of bullet points concerning Britain’s role as a non euro-zone country in an EU dominated by that currency. These were essentially reactive, responding to recent continental attempts (all unsuccessful) to secure British contributions to the Greek bailout, force European clearing houses out of London and leave Britain vulnerable to strong-arming by the euro-zone on matters of financial regulation.
Thus begins Britain’s messy “renegotiation” and with it something like the start of its referendum campaign. Mr Cameron has not always confronted his party’s European neuralgia as wisely as he might. His decision in 2009 to pull it out of the centre-right European People’s Party looks more self-destructive by the month, while his Bloomberg speech raised expectations of his grand bargain with Brussels that he must now create at least a wispy impression of fulfilling. But he is right to go into Britain’s debate on Europe as the voice of pragmatism. More than that, in the circumstances he is right to do so with a package of changes that—for all the theatrics—are modestly good for Europe and most importantly humour an electorate that knows and cares little about the EU, but tells polling firms that a renegotiation endorsed by Mr Cameron will ease the process of entering the polling booth and, nose wrinkled, voting to stay in.