David Cameron facing both ways, but his aims on EU are clearer

Leaked diplomatic note reveals British prime minister’s strategy for keeping UK in the EU

British prime minister David Cameron at the EU  summit in Brussels. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

British prime minister David Cameron at the EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

 

By their denials, or, more importantly, by the lack of them, shall ye know them. This is usually a good guide to working out the private thoughts of politicians, even if it does not always reveal all their secrets.

Shortly before he held his final press conference of the European Union summit in Brussels, British prime minister David Cameron was faced with a leak of a diplomatic note of one of his conversations with a fellow EU leader. The note suggested that Cameron has “the firm aim” of keeping the UK inside the EU, which is not news, though Cameron would have preferred such words not to appear in print.

More significantly, however, the note went on to give a flavour of the campaign that he will run to ensure that British voters say yes, rather than no, to Europe. Such a campaign would focus on the “risky” fallout for the UK if it opts to quit, with Cameron quoted as believing that voters will opt for the status quo over a leap into the dark.

The diplomatic note, first published by the Guardian, appears to have been drafted late in Cameron’s diplomatic tour of the EU, where he “had eaten my way” around Europe in a bid to appear conciliatory.

However, it was definitely written after his meetings with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian leader Matteo Renzi and France’s Françcois Hollande. The first two offered positive noises, it recorded, while the latter was warier.

Suspicious minds went into overdrive, pointing out that it appeared at first glance to have been written before Cameron had met with leaders from Luxembourg, Slovakia and Slovenia, and with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

“The PM said that he had deliberately not produced a lengthy shopping list and had been careful in formulating his wish list, but he needed to get satisfaction on these reform demands,” the note said.

“He said that he needed to win the middle ground, and if he is to achieve this, then moderate people needed to feel that the things that bother them about the EU have been dealt with.”

‘Extraordinary if true’

Daniel Hannan

Cameron has gone to considerable effort to come across as reasonable and accommodating during his EU tour, paying more attention to the local mood music in other EU capitals than London is normally good at doing.

However, the welcome given was patchy. None of Cameron’s European Council colleagues want UK demands to be couched in the language of Brexit, even if more than a few agree with them on individual points.

Cameron’s enemies – the most dangerous ones, those inside his own ranks – will make great play of the diplomatic note, but, in truth, it matches his private thoughts and also the political reality of the landscape ahead of him.

Getting a deal that will work is not impossible, but it is extremely difficult, particularly if it involves treaty change – perhaps delayed rather than immediate, perhaps by protocol rather than by rewriting existing texts – as London says it will.

Cameron did emphasise to colleagues that a negative decision was possible if he failed to win changes to welfare rules, or to get recognition that ever closer union no longer applies to the UK in an era of a multispeed EU. But he did so softly.

However, Cameron has a chance of getting a deal only if his EU colleagues – all of them – are convinced that he will sell its terms with all his might in a referendum campaign, no ifs, no buts. And even then, there are few guarantees.

The importance of the diplomatic note will, no doubt, be exaggerated, but it highlights the fundamental difficulty that he faces: that he has to deliver one message to a home audience, and another around tables in Brussels.

Two horses

His contribution to the EU Council dinner on Thursday was roundly mocked within the British press corps that had travelled from Westminster, being seen as the equivalent of an unwanted intervention by an uncle at a wedding as the plates are being gathered for the next course.

Even 10 Downing Street gave up on this quickly, describing the Cameron presentation to the EU Council as being like “a passing-out parade or a graduation”, rather than a great moment in EU history.

Ireland provides a model, Cameron believes, for coping with the immediate problem he has: that British voters will be asked to vote in a referendum on a deal that has not been ratified first by every other country.

If occasionally irritated by the black humour directed towards its efforts, the British government seems willing to bite the lip for now in the hope that a basis for serious talks will exist in six months’ time.

The model for the negotiations – seeking a political deal that would lead later to treaty changes – worked for Ireland, Cameron said, after the Nice and Lisbon treaties.

Undoubtedly, Cameron is right about that, but the political risks were lower in those cases. This time, though, a country could have decided to remain in the EU on the basis of a deal that subsequently failed.

However, a significant moment has been reached. Officials will now spend months poring over the British papers, in the first stage of a drama that will run until December, when matters are reviewed.

Cameron still says he wants a referendum deal next year, if only because his political flanks will become more exposed within the Conservative Party the longer the talks go on. However, that timetable is already slipping.