Today has probably been the most interesting day in British politics since the general election in 2010. David Cameron has delivered his long-awaited speech on what he thinks the British future in the European Union should be. In his remarks, the British Prime Minister made clear that if he was to be reelected in 2015, he would seek a major renegotiation of the terms of British EU membership. He could not be pinned down to what exactly he would like to renegotiate but only mentioned broad areas such as social and employment law. Cameron also avoided answering the question, posed to him repeatedly, what he would do if he failed to achieve what he would consider an acceptable renegotiated membership. So all in all the Prime Minister created more new questions than he provided answers.
A few hours later, in a heated discussion in the House of Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband made clear that his position on the matter has not changed: he is against an in-out referendum on EU membership. This has, for the time being, drawn a very clear dividing line between the Conservative Party and the Labour opposition but has also created a paradox. David Cameron delivered his speech to reinforce British independence from the ‘ever closer’ European Union but what he really has brought about is a situation in which British politics, and thus his own fate, is now largely dependent on what other European governments, above all the German and French governments, do. Why is this?
Let us assume that the negative European responses to Cameron’s speech are an indication of things to come and it becomes clear that no major renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership is possible. It can be safely assumed that we will know whether this is possible or not before the next general election in 2015 as it is an illusion to think that the EU will not move decisively in the next 2 ½ years. And bear in mind, Cameron explicitly mentioned treaty change and for this he needs the consent of all other EU members, whereas it is not clear yet whether the reform of the Eurozone will be pursued by treaty change or by others means.
If this situation happens David Cameron is caught between a rock and a hard place. He would be weakened as he could not deliver on his promise of major renegotiation and he would also be trapped because he would have to decide whether the UK should have an in-out referendum anyway (he would pretty much have to) and what his recommendation would be. He has made clear that he would campaign in favour of membership if it can be renegotiated but there is no answer yet as to what he would do if the choice is status quo or out. This limbo would not only weaken him but again divide his party and set him further apart from his coalition partner.
Ed Miliband, on the other hand, would have made the right decision in this scenario. He could argue that he was convinced from the beginning that Cameron’s strategy had too many unknowns and that he argued all along that the Prime Minister would only damage Britain’s national interest by isolating the UK in the EU and jeopardising Britain’s economic recovery by creating years of uncertainty. He could claim that one can only legitimately argue for EU reform if oneself is a committed member of the club and does not blackmail one’s allies. Miliband could portray himself as the man who can repair the damage, which might well be a decisive factor in the 2015 election.
The situation, however, changes if you assume that Cameron can get something out of the renegotiation process that he can sell as major concessions. In this case he would have proven that against the odds the managed to get what his European partners were very reluctant to give and that his strategy was well calculated. He would then move to stage two by having an in-out referendum on the renegotiated deal. This would put pressure on the Labour party to change direction and also accept an in-out referendum or being accused of unwillingness to give the British people the say that it has been denied for such a long time. In such a scenario Cameron would not have defeated UKIP and his Eurosceptic backbenchers but the political momentum would be firmly on his side. Labour, on the other hand, would be weakened and it could well lose a general election it would otherwise be in a good position to win.
The paradox here is that even though the overarching aim is British independence in Europe it is effectively out of David Cameron’s hands which scenario is more likely to become reality. We are now in a situation, in which the decisions of Berlin and Paris about how to deal with his renegotiation request will be decisive. If they don’t give in, Cameron is in a desperate position and Labour has called the right shots. Given that all EU members have to agree with Cameron’s cherry picking, and I cannot see this happening, Labour seems to be on the right side of the argument.