Cameron's EU speech set to clash with Obama's inauguration

Speech now scheduled for Monday would coincide with the US president's public swearing-in ceremony.

David Cameron's apparently jinxed speech on the EU will now be delivered on Monday. That's according to today's FT, which reports that as Downing Street advisers gathered to discuss the Algerian crisis and reschedule the speech, "Cameron made it clear he wanted to give it on Monday".

Whether or not the Prime Minister gets his way largely depends on the outcome of the hostage standoff, with no guarantee that all British citizens will be accounted for by the end of the weekend. But has Number 10 considered another potential obstacle? Monday 21 January is also the date of Barack Obama's second inauguration. Since 20 January - presidential Inauguration Day - is a Sunday, only a private ceremony will be held with the public ceremony, as is traditional in such circumstances, pushed back to the following day. It will be the seventh time in US history that the constitutionally mandated inauguration date has fallen on a Sunday, with Ronald Reagan the last president to be inaugurated on a Monday in 1985.

Given the attention that will be on Obama and the US administration's publicly expressed scepticism of Cameron's EU strategy, Downing Street would be advised to postpone the speech again. According to a White House readout, Obama told Cameron on Thursday that "the United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world." The US, which has long sought to support European integration (recall Henry Kissinger's question, "Who do I call when I want to speak to Europe?"), has been troubled by speculation that the UK could withdraw from the EU at some point in the next five years. Earlier this month, Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary for European affairs, warned that "referendums have often turned countries inwards". He added: "every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world."

Number 10 has already been forced to move the speech once to avoid a diplomatic incident. After months of delays, Cameron was due to deliver his address on 22 January but Angela Merkel's office complained that this would clash with celebrations to mark the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Élysée Treaty between France and Germany, which cemented the two countries' post-war reconciliation.

Tory MPs were promised an address from Cameron on Europe as long ago as last autumn but when the speech failed to materialise this was changed to "before Christmas". When this deadline too was missed, Cameron ill-advisedly remarked at a press gallery lunch in Westminster: "Thanks for reminding me that my Europe speech remains as yet unmade. This is a tantric approach to policy-making: it’ll be even better when it does eventually come." But Monday would appear the wrong day to deliver.

Barack Obama told David Cameron that the US "values a strong UK in a strong European Union" during a phonecall on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.