The PM's speech: Cameron ties himself in knots over EU question


The multilingual Nick Clegg was in humorous mood yesterday, joking that the prime minister, David Cameron, will bring him along to the Netherlands later this month when the latter delivers a much-awaited speech on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.

“I, as a Dutch speaker, will be at hand to give a translation, from double-Dutch to just Dutch,” the Liberal Democrats leader and deputy prime minister – who was an MEP in an earlier life – told Westminster journalists.

There is plenty of translating, or, at any rate, interpreting to be done, since many fret that Cameron has set the UK on a road that guarantees its departure, or at least a significant running-down of its role in the union.

The Americans are already antsy, sending a State Department official to London this week to offer worried noises, while the Germans fret that Cameron’s plans for a referendum – on a wording still to be argued over – could paralyse the EU.

Clegg is less than impressed with Cameron’s handling of events, which has consisted of a succession of tactical actions, never overarching strategy, taken often in an atmosphere of mild panic dating back to last summer, if not much earlier.

Under Cameron’s plan the UK would win concessions from EU partners on matters that annoy it in return for not being a disruptive nuisance or, worse, during talks on a treaty needed to safeguard the euro.

However, there are more than a few problems here. Firstly, other EU countries object to Cameron threatening to put a gun to their heads.

What Britain wants

Secondly, the British disagree about what they want most that they have a reasonable chance of getting.

“We don’t know when there will be an EU treaty. Lots of people in the euro zone say they want to avoid an EU treaty like the plague. If they have a new treaty we don’t know what it will say, we don’t know what it will ask, if anything,” said Clegg yesterday.

“It isn’t whether you think a referendum is a good idea or not, it is whether you would have a great national debate about nothing much in particular in response to a document that hasn’t materialised yet and might never materialise.”

Yesterday the Conservative-leaning Spectator fixed June 30th last year as a date on which historians may look back as the one “where the great exit began” if the coming years see the UK’s once-unthinkable departure from the EU.

That was when Cameron first placed the words “referendum” and “EU” together, it pointed out. However, the decision to do so was not grand strategy, carefully prepared, but rather a text cobbled together by email from train station platforms in London and Brussels.

Clegg says he does not know what Cameron will say, but nor should he, since anything Cameron does say will be a matter for adjudication by the electorate in the 2015 election, rather than something that will dictate EU policy during the coalition’s remaining life.

Cameron’s shopping list

Last month Cameron joked that the speech will be “like tantric sex, worth waiting for”, though now Downing Street indicates, following months of evasion and prevarication, that the PM has decided he now knows what he wants to say.

Whether it will be coherent or deliverable is in doubt. The single market should be expanded, not reduced, or stalled: Brussels should have more powers, if necessary, to ensure that that is brought about, he will argue.

So far, his shopping list of demands is being carefully hidden: the usual bugbears of the working-time directive and EU regional spending rules will figure, says the Spectator, but such hardly advances knowledge much.

The outcome of negotiations would then be put to the British public in 2018 – three years after the next election – but the referendum promise would be written in blood in the 2015 manifesto to make sure anti-EU voters can be convinced.

The logic behind the speech is impenetrable, since the possible concessions are not enough for his increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers, many of whom want to quit the EU altogether. A Conservative rebellion – one before 2015 – now seems inevitable.

Cameron cannot deliver what he demands, unless extraordinary events take place in Brussels that force the EU-26 to kowtow to London. Even if he does, it will not be enough.

Either way, he has put himself into an impossible bind.