Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have recently encouraged voters to view them as dialectical opposites: Clegg represents "the party of in", Farage the "party of out" (the pair will soon debate each other on these terms). But it's worth highlighting one point on which the two leaders agree: David Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy. Back in November 2012, Clegg said of his coalition partner's ambition to repatriate powers from Brussels:
I want to focus on a proposal doing the rounds – that the best way to improve the UK's position in Europe is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU. We should opt out of the bad bits, stay opted into the good bits, and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers.
That seems reasonable. In fact it's a pretty seductive offer – who would disagree with that?
But look a little closer. Because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing. But in reality it is a false promise wrapped in a union jack.
Today, at UKIP's Spring Conference, Farage used strikingly similar language to deride Cameron's plan:
What actually Angela Merkel exposed yesterday is that renegotiation, fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, is something that has been put up by David Cameron to kick the issue into the long grass beyond the next general election. It is not obtainable. It is not achievable. Renegotiation is a con.
For Clegg, renegotiation is "a false promise"; for Farage, it's "a con". Angela Merkel, the woman who the Tories have pinned their hopes on, said nothing during her visit to Westminster to suggest either is wrong (as Rafael wrote yesterday). None of the changes the the German Chancellor cited, such as new rules to prevent "benefit tourism", and greater deregulation and subsidiarity, come close to the grand repatriation (the single market without "all the other stuff", in the words of Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) that Tory eurosceptics crave (although many merely support renegotiation as a prelude to full withdrawal). The uncomfortable truth for Cameron, as Merkel signalled yesterday, is that there will be no special status for Britain. As she said in her speech to MPs and peers: "Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment."
The message was clear: in a union of 28, there can be no cherry-picking. It is true, as Cameron likes to point out, that UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency and the Schengen zone. But since Britain was never a member of either to begin with, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would risk unravelling as other member states made similarly self-interested demands. Tory MPs' vision of an à la carte Europe in which Britain, alone among the EU 28, is able to pick and choose which laws it obeys, is one rejected by all those with any significant influence over the outcome.
Cameron, who has been careful not to publish a "shopping list" of demands (for fear that it will be rejected as insufficient by eurosceptics), is likely to emphasise again that no one goes into a renegotiation "hoping and expecting to fail". But when two figures as polarised as Clegg and Farage, declare alike that he will, it will become even harder to maintain this pretence.