AN editorial in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph concluded: “Europe has pushed us to the limits of our national interest and beyond. In finally making that clear, the Prime Minister has done this country an invaluable service.”
I’m not sure that there is convincing evidence to support that conclusion. During the negotiations Cameron confirmed that he would sign up to a new treaty in exchange for some “very reasonable” assurances on financial services. He confirmed this stance in a post-conference statement, presently posted on the Conservative Party’s website: “Of course, we want the eurozone countries to come together and to solve their problems. But we should only allow that to happen inside the European Union treaties if there are proper protections for the single market and other key British interests. Without those safeguards, it is better not to have a treaty within a treaty...”
In other words, if Germany and France had agreed to those safeguards then Cameron would have agreed a new treaty. Now, since he has already confirmed that he would only ever offer a UK referendum if he, personally and unilaterally, believed that British powers and authority were threatened, then had France and Germany agreed to his very modest proposals we would today have had a new treaty and no referendum: and a very different editorial from the Daily Telegraph. So it seems to me as though the Prime Minister’s “invaluable service” was the consequence of the French/German veto rather than Cameron’s own courage or conviction.
Where I do agree with the Daily Telegraph, though, is that “the European strategy Britain has pursued for decades, has run out of road. We can no longer engage in a process of give and take (or rather, give and give) in the hope of reshaping Europe - at some nebulous, far-off point - in ways that we find more amenable. It is not just that Brussels will ignore our lines in the sand, and our pleas for the repatriation of powers. It is that the core of Europe has embarked on a course we cannot reasonably follow.”
The argument for remaining in the European Union (and it was never an argument I regarded as particularly credible in the first place) was that we would be better off inside, using our influence to protect our national interests and putting a brake on closer political, economic and constitutional integration. Well, what Cameron discovered in the early hours of Friday morning was that the UK has no influence whatsoever. Let’s be honest, he couldn’t even persuade the sceptical Swedish, Hungarian or Czech Republican governments to back his position!
Whatever some of his most fawning payroll acolytes would have us believe this is not Cameron’s “Churchill moment”. He is where he is because he is un-respected and un-influential within the European Union. The key figures ignore him and the minor figures (even those who have expressed reservations about aspects of the Merkel/Sarkozy strategy) are unwilling to rally to his side. And it’s entirely his own fault. His climbdown on the Lisbon Treaty at the end of 2009 and his absurd grandstanding during the EU referendum debate in Westminster a few weeks ago, suggest to friends and foe alike that he takes a “flexible” approach to the EU. So flexible, in fact, that people like Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith and even Owen Paterson felt obliged to issue their own warnings when he headed to Brussels on Thursday.
Cameron is now in the worst possible position. The other 26 members of the EU have faced him down and brushed him aside. Not one single member backed him. Yet the UK remains chained to the EU machinery and still faces the political, trading and economic consequences of what those countries choose to do. He cannot hope to have any credible input to the new accord that the other 26 will presently and speedily negotiate, so it will be presented to him as a fait accompli, with the UK either forced into a humiliating retreat or an ill-prepared exit from the EU altogether.
All of this could have been avoided if Cameron had opted for a referendum back in 2009. I think he would almost certainly have won a Conservative majority in the 2010 general election and a referendum a few months later would, at the very least, have allowed him and the rest of the EU to know exactly where the UK stood. Consequently - unless, of course, the UK had voted to withdraw (which in itself would have greatly clarified matters) - his bargaining position would have been greatly enhanced.
The problem with Cameron is that he suffers from congenital dithering syndrome: he recognises the decisions that he will have to make and he knows that he will have to make them; yet he seems somehow incapable of summoning up the willingness to actually make them. It may be something to do with the fact that he is a hideously liberal jellyfish trapped in a Conservative body, or it may just be the case that he is a monumentally incompetent leader and Prime Minister.
Whichever is the case, I’m not sure that the country’s interests are likely to be well served by a Prime Minister whose own strategic stupidity put the UK into this quandary in the first place and whose room for manoeuvre is limited by the Tweedledum/Tweedledee relationship he has with Nick Clegg - the only politician on the planet who manages to be more absurd than Cameron.
There can now be no excuse for refusing the UK electorate the opportunity to let their voice be heard at a referendum. The “we-will-have-more-influence-inside” argument has been blown out of the water in spectacularly noisy fashion, with our Prime Minister now little more than mere jetsam. The EU has indicated that it can live perfectly well without the UK: so isn’t it about time that the UK proved that the feeling is mutual? The EU is clearly headed somewhere where most people in the UK probably don’t want to go. The greatest service that David Cameron could now offer would be the referendum that allows us to leave this Topsy monstrosity and prove that we can stand on our own two feet. He could also initiate a proper debate on the future of the UK. I won’t be holding my breath, though: for there is no recorded evolutionary evidence of a jellyfish developing a spine.