Now Cameron is between a rock and a hard place


Picture of Julie Smith
Julie Smith

British politicians will be spending a lot of time in airport lounges this summer and in the autumn as they embark on shuttle diplomacy. They will be involved in extensive bi-lateral discussions across Europe as they seek to alter the UK’s relations with the rest of the EU. David Cameron, newly returned as the leader of the UK’s first majority Conservative government for nearly 20 years, seeks to deliver on a key election pledge: to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU by or before the end of 2017. He is playing a high-risk game, with the highest of stakes.

After one of the dullest election campaigns in decades, in early May the UK electorate delivered one of the most dramatic outcomes. An outright majority for the Conservatives, thanks predominantly to English votes, alongside something tantamount to a clean sweep in Scotland for the Scottish National Party. Both highlight new divisions that raise serious long-term questions about Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK. It also puts the UK’s relations with the EU centre-stage.

The government introduced a draft EU Referendum Act just three weeks after the election, outlining provisions for the In/Out referendum to be held by the end of 2017. Many pro-Europeans believe an early referendum would be desirable to limit market instability and because it increases the chances of a ‘yes’ vote. David Cameron now has to deliver on of his pledge to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. For years, all the main British political parties have held a similar line on relations with the EU – that it is in the UK’s interests to remain in the Union, but that it should be reformed. What those reforms should be was never clearly articulated, and the extensive ‘balance of competences review’ undertaken by the outgoing Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government suggested that few if any powers needed to be repatriated. Yet the Conservatives’ general election manifesto pledged to ‘reform the workings of the EU and ‘reclaim power from Brussels’. There were few details, but they included guaranteeing the interests of non-eurozone countries and an end to the commitment to ‘ever-closer union’. The new government also wishes to end the right of other EU nationals to claim benefits until they have lived in the UK for four years.

Some of the changes wanted by the UK could come via changes to domestic laws, but others require agreement from all the other 27 EU countries. Cameron therefore desperately needs to persuade his EU partners to give sufficient concessions to let him tell British voters that he has secured a good deal for Britain. His twin challenges are to persuade his European partners that it’s worth negotiating with a country that already appears to be heading towards the EU exit door and to persuade a sceptical Britain – not least members of his own party – that the deal is meaningful.

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