Brexit: David Cameron’s gamble

A referendum in June looks likely

Draft decisions of the EU Council and Commission proposed by President of the Council Donald Tusk on Tuesday in response to UK demands for a reframing of its relationship with the EU represent a balancing act in legal and political terms.

Importantly, although the text refers repeatedly to the UK and acknowledges its specific concerns, it is based on an articulation of the rights of all member states – the UK will rightly not get a veto on the eurozone and its work, as the French and some others feared, just an equal say when it is going to be affected by decisions. And the decision it is seeking to allow it to restrict EU migrants’ access to its welfare and in-work benefits system is couched in terms of a shared right for all to seek from fellow member states permission to derogate temporarily from EU rules in exceptional circumstances.

Whether Tusk's formulations will be acceptable to fellow member states will be tested shortly when the Council meets – but what is clear is that any further concessions to a British exceptionalist case would certainly not pass muster. There are also still likely to be sharp questions, not least from Poland, about the migrants/welfare issue which still arguably erodes free movement principles at the core of the Union.

The other side of the balancing act is the calculation by Tusk as much as David Cameron of what UK voters, and the Tory Party, will wear. This is not, and could never have been, what Cameron promised and still pretends it to be, a major change in the UK-EU relationship. And as many of his critics, and even supporters, are arguing with some justice it barely reaches the low bar he himself has set.


But the first indications are that, despite headlines like "Who do eu think you are kidding Mr Cameron?" (Sun) and "Crusade to get Britain out of the EU must continue" (Daily Mail), the prime minister has got the measure of his task and has succeeded in confining defections from the cabinet on the issue to three, none of them heavyweight figures. The campaign to leave will in the public eye now look as if it is being led by Nigel Farrage. A nervous Middle England will not be impressed. A fair wind, it would seem, for a June referendum.