David Cameron is in quite a pickle.
As I explained in my previous article, the EU referendum was the Tory leader’s attempt to unite his party. Ironically, the issue has now divided Tory MPs more than ever.
After his renegotiation the prime minister is supposed to back the ‘in’ campaign. If so, he’ll have to choose between two courses of action.
Either he whips his ministers so they’ll collectively support their PM, or he picks a public fight with half his cabinet.
But he can worry about that later. First he has the task of getting as much out of his renegotiation as he possibly can. How’s that going?
Part of the reason why is, in my belief, that Cameron is a reluctant negotiator.
I’ve said before that I don’t believe Cameron really wants this referendum. I think this is why he has shown no leadership on the matter.
Just look at the four ‘key demands’ Cameron and his allies in the cabinet drew up. Two of these ‘reasons to stay in the EU’ are no more than gesture politics.
He wants the EU to make ‘explicit statements’ that it isn’t a super state and the euro isn’t its official currency. This changes nothing about its day-to-day mechanisms.
I can understand Cameron’s reluctance to spell out specific demands to which others can judge his success. But from the moment he kicked off the Europe vote, we’ve seen little proof of there being a renegotiation agenda at all.
Elephant in a china store
More worrying is Cameron’s lack of diplomatic tact.
The referendum seems to go against every bone in his body. Despite that the prime minister still could’ve had more success in his efforts so far.
The key would’ve been to treat his European colleagues as partners. If he’d warmed them up for reform in everybody’s interest, I’m sure he would’ve had more allies.
There’s a majority of conservative governments in the EU after all. Most of these would be open to reforms of the kind Cameron has in mind: more power back to the nation state and more democracy at the EU level.
Yet, this is not how Cameron has been going about things. In fact, the prime minister’s diplomacy has been more, as the French would say, like an elephant in a china store.
The appointment of commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is a particularly striking example of this.
When Tony Blair wanted to block Guy Verhofstadt for the same position, he privately lobbied for a different candidate.
Cameron went a different way. He opted for the ‘throwing my toys out of the pram’ tactic.
He publicly stated he could “no longer guarantee Britain staying in” if he didn’t get his way. He also managed to insult Juncker in the process and openly scorned his EU partners.
You can probably guess which of the two strategies proved successful.
More proof of Cameron’s discomfort with the referendum manifested itself in June. After first stating that cabinet ministers would have to resign if they backed a Brexit, he retracted that statement the next day.
The embarrassment was blamed on the press misinterpreting his words. Still, all the political spin in the world cannot hide the fact that Cameron’s Europe headache is turning into a migraine.
The PM’s awkward position
Ever since he proposed the referendum Cameron seems to be on the back foot.
First he needs to get support for considerable reforms within the EU. Then he needs to convince his party the deal he negotiated is a good one.
That’s easier said than done.
Cameron doesn’t know what to give Tory Eurosceptics to change their mind and he doesn’t know what his European neighbours are willing to concede.
For the record, I don’t think any EU member state wants Britain to leave. Having said that, it’s unlikely Cameron’s tactics in Europe have made other EU leaders more accommodating.
The expectation is that Cameron’s renegotiation won’t lead to an awful lot and this could put him in an awkward position.
It’s generally believed Cameron is pro Europe and he is still expected to campaign for Britain to stay in.
But: he can’t show up empty-handed and still act as if the EU is fine as it is.
If all he wanted was some minor tweaks then having a referendum and a renegotiation of Britain’s membership would make little sense.
Meanwhile leaders from both the pro and anti EU side have strongly criticised Cameron’s handling of the situation.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has told Cameron he should ‘seek reform in partnership and without rancour’.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage on the other hand has previously called the prime minister’s attempts at renegotiation ‘humiliating’.
Pressure will mount from both camps to pick a side the closer we get to the referendum. A choice Cameron will want to postpone until he has something to show for his efforts.
Cameron should’ve made a passionate case for reform and emphasised his desire to find a better deal for everyone. The British referendum would’ve given him the leverage needed to bring about changes to the EU.
A little diplomacy goes a long way in Brussels. Yet instead of shaking hands we see Cameron arm-wrestling 27 people at the same time.
Cameron needs to get back on the good side of his European counterparts. If he doesn’t, he’s unlikely to have anything meaningful to put before the British people.
As a last note, thank you to those who’ve emailed in about this so far – you’ve stoked up some debate in the office already that I know will spill over onto this website very soon.
Keep your thoughts on the EU and the referendum coming in to firstname.lastname@example.org