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Cameron’s Petard

Dr Simon Usherwood

After an eventful few weeks in the life of David Cameron’s EU policy, some of the heat has gone out of matters, albeit only in the sense that the heat shifted to the question of gay marriages. Interesting then, how much more willing Cameron has been to engage backbenchers on the latter issue than the former.

However, such contrasts are not the primary concern here, but rather how the development of policy has continued to paint Cameron into a corner.

With that in mind, we might disregard his remarks yesterday about being firm on when a referendum might run, as if this might actually be enough to keep his backbench in order after their recent series of successes. Instead, we should acknowledge that current policy risks making an positive argument about EU membership ever more difficult to make.

Yesterday’s European Council in a case in point. Following the multi-lateral initiative last month on sharing of tax information, the meeting agreed further progress in the field, albeit still having to work around Austrian and Luxembourgish objections. In this, the UK was a key mover, working with the other large member states to address a growing concern at a time of austerity. In short, a classic example of Moravcsik’s liberal intergovernmental European supply to meet national demands.

This is not in question, but we can also note how the government once again has chosen not to make much of their ‘success’ in ‘Brussels.’ Clearly, the news agenda was rather taken over by the events in Woolwich, but there does not seem to have been much appetite anywhere to dwell on a relative success (even the Austrian coverage has been measured). This is not only a British phenomenon, but it has particular implications.

If Cameron’s referendum plan is to succeed – and success here is taken to be renegotiation leading to approval of new terms in referendum – then several things need to happen (on the British side).

Firstly, there have to be some symbolic ‘concessions’ to take home from the renegotiation, things that people can relatively easily understand.

Secondly, there has to be enough renegotiation beyond the symbolic to let Cameron make the argument to his party that it was a success and so peel off some of the sceptics.

But thirdly, Cameron needs to be able to show that a British agenda of market-based integration has traction in the EU and that he is ‘winning the argument’ (telling phrase that it is) on liberalisation, fraud, etc. He needs this because without it, his referendum campaign will sound too negatively framed: ‘here’s what we’re rescued’, rather than ‘we’re setting the standard and leading the way.’ That will be important in building a coalition across party lines to win a vote.

All of which raises the question of why there is not more pushing of the successes, when they happen.

Of course, the reason is that the conditions just outlined are for the medium-term, after a general election that has yet to be won, and which won’t be won on European policy. The current perceived need to be ‘tough’ on Europe predominates. Indeed ‘success in Brussels’ is not a good strapline, precisely because it reminds voters and backbenchers that the government is in Brussels, and not at home, sorting out the economy or fighting terrorism.

It is one of the sad hallmarks of Cameron’s European policy that he has repeatedly had to return home from European visits to deal with urgent business, a strange reversal of the maxim that government leaders like to engage in foreign affairs because it gets them away from home difficulties. Cameron, on the other hand, seems not to want to spend any more time in cultivating his European partners than is strictly necessary. An odd way to go about setting the scene for a renegotiation.

Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.

Twitter: @Usherwood and @surreypolitics



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