Cameron's EU stance is unsustainable and the sceptics know it

The EU-lite deal he imagines to keep the best of both worlds can't be done.

David Cameron would not campaign for a “No” vote if the British people were asked in a referendum if they wanted to stay in the European Union. That is one of the main news items to come out of a wide-ranging interview the PM has given to the Daily Telegraph at the start of the long summer recess.

At one level, it isn’t that much of a surprise. In a long parliamentary debate after the last European Council summit, Cameron expressed, albeit in fairly delicate terms, the very same point. He indicated that he doesn’t want to hold a referendum now, because the nature of the EU is changing rapidly in response to the single currency crisis. He would rather wait to see what institutional adjustments and treaty changes emerge, use those amendments to negotiate a different, looser relationship with Brussels and then perhaps consult the nation on whether his preferred EU terms are acceptable.

It stands to reason that he expects his negotiations to be successful, or at least that he would only dare hold a referendum if he thought he had wangled a decent package, including “repatriation” of powers. So, by extension, he would be selling a deal with his name on it. Naturally he would then campaign for a “yes” vote.

The curious thing is that he has chosen to spell it out again now in black and white. Anyone familiar with or who cares about the way EU diplomacy actually works knows it would be an affront for an incumbent British PM to go around advertising in advance that he might campaign for complete exit. And those who think exit is the only serious and desirable option already suspect Cameron of being a bit of a Brussels quisling. So the only thing this interview line can achieve is rubbing the sceptics’ noses in the fact that they don’t have a friend in Number 10. An odd choice, given the difficulties Cameron already has with party management.

But the real problem Cameron has with all this stuff is the complacency (or naivete?) in thinking he will get a renegotiation deal that will satisfy the Tories. The argument usually deployed is that Britain is a desirable market for our European neighbours and a purchaser of their goods and services. Ergo, they will want to keep us on side and will acquiesce to our demands.

There are two problems. First, diplomacy can trump economics in Europe. Cameron has persistently underestimated how fed up the rest of the continent is with the UK’s half-hearted engagement – the in/out “hokey-cokey” approach. This goes back way further than the current government. The Germans in particular are said to be impatient and their appetite to meet London’s needs is diminished further by conspicuous Schadenfreude among Tories over the failings in the single currency project. The British message in Brussels at the moment boils down to: “We’re sorry that you’ve made a right hash of everything. We did warn you. It’s not really our problem, except when it impacts on our growth. So could you please sort it out. Follow policies of deeper integration, which we despise and would never pursue ourselves and then, when you’ve finished, could we please have a whole bunch of social policies back plus other yet-to-be named dispensations? Oh, and by the way, we’ll veto your treaties unless you give us what we want. And did we add that we won’t surrender any control over the terms of the single market. We must stay at the top table at all times. Is that ok?”

A Whitehall source, who has discussed these things with senior figures in Angela Merkel’s office, recently ran this proposition past German counterparts and reports that: “The answer is ‘no’”. Of course it is.
Second, even if Cameron negotiates some nominal repatriation of powers – a looser arrangement on paper – and even if he secures formal guarantees that our status in the single market is preserved, he can’t deliver that protection in practice. He can do nothing about “caucusing”. This is the process by which members of a new, ultra-integrated, consolidated Eurozone turn up at wider EU summits with pre-agreed positions that can be voted through, whether Britain likes it or not. In other words, Cameron could have a piece of paper saying the UK will not be disadvantaged in the single market and wave it around like crazy when he steps off the Eurostar, but it won’t matter because we’ll be marginalised when it comes to the detail of all subsequent rule changes. The sceptics understand this perfectly well and so won’t be fooled by any “renegotiation”. They will still want out.

So really Cameron’s message is that he can’t give his party what it really wants on Europe and he won’t pretend that he can. That is a brave line to take given the current mood of the Conservative benches.

PS. For further reading on UK relations with the EU, by far the best thing published recently is this excellent Centre for European Reform pamphlet by David Rennie of the Economist.

David Cameron said he would not campaign for a "no" vote in an EU referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.