Talking Politics

EU speech: Cameron’s approach has the bravado of a bully

David Cameron has let domestic politics triumph over diplomacy. The closer you look at his EU referendum speech, the more it becomes clear his goal is winning power in 2015.

At present the prime minister is seriously off-track to achieve his number one priority, re-election. Promising an EU referendum is going to help him achieve that. Tory activists are already welcoming the speech as an harbinger of a positive campaign, thinking their job of taking seats from Labour has just got a lot easier.

Labour's initial response is muddled at best. What a contrast with Cameron, looking straight ahead into the television camera and viewers' living rooms, stating: "It will be an in-out referendum. Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year... it is time for the British people to have their say."

The Tory party will unite behind Cameron's quest for a 'mandate' towards a referendum in the run-up to the next general election. Cameron may have increased his chances of winning an outright majority in 2015, but he is almost certainly making the job he faces much harder after that date.

Already initial indications are many eurosceptic Tories will campaign against their party leader in seeking an exit. The referendum, when it comes, will reopen old sores with a vengeance. These referendum campaigns are not sideshows, as the lingering bitterness the coalition's junior partners feel about the way they were treated by the Tories in the electoral reform fiasco shows. Cameron will alienate a sizeable chunk of his parliamentary party. It may even end up proving his downfall.

But then that depends, doesn't it? If the prime minister is deemed to have got a good deal for Britain, he will probably win the support of the British people and, more critically for him, the bulk of his party. This is Cameron's biggest gamble, a bet against the odds that his European adversaries will blink first in the shootout to come.

Whether he succeeds depends on many factors outside his control. If yesterday's speech is anything to go by, he is doing his best to undermine his chances.

Cameron's speech went through the motions of avoiding confrontation with European leaders. It began by talking about the bonds Britain has with Europe and seeks to laugh off the prickly British equivocal attitude to the continent. "We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel," the prime minister shrugged apologetically. There were a handful of laughs at this in the room, but not many. Diplomats knew what was coming.

Yet even they may have been surprised by the threats which Cameron made during this speech. He outlined Britain's primary interest in being Europe is the single market, called for the EU to do away with its commitment to "ever closer union" and finished with something some in Brussels have described as blackmail: accept our terms in the renegotiation to come, or we'll leave. "I say to our European partners, frustrated as some of them no doubt are by Britain's attitude: work with us on this," Cameron urged. After all, he added, imagine the alternative. "It is hard to argue that the EU would not be greatly diminished by Britain's departure."

This sort of brazen, uncompromising language is typical of Cameron's rough-and-ready, thoroughly undiplomatic diplomacy. He is resorting to the bravado of a bully determined to get his way by sheer force of personality. This often brings political dividends, as was the case with his December 2011 EU veto. It also brings political setbacks. As the veto triumph turning to dust when the other 26 member states went ahead without him anyway showed.

The European Union would be weakened by Britain's exit, but the UK will only be able to push its luck so far. Cameron gave an indication of the sorts of changes he wants this morning. To Brussels bureaucrats, he asked: "Can we justify a Commission that gets ever larger? Can we carry on with an organisation that has a multi-billion pound budget but not enough focus on controlling spending and shutting down programmes that haven't worked?" This sort of fighting talk will push officials at the EU's nerve centre towards a grim determination to preserve whatever they can from the process.

There is one way in which the prime minister may be able to lessen the impact: by reframing the terms of the debate to suit him. He tried to do this by laying a smokescreen of silliness over one of the most important sentences of his speech. "Let's stop all this talk of two-speed Europe, of fast lanes and slow lanes, of countries missing trains and buses, and consign the whole weary caravan of metaphors to a permanent siding," he urged. The idea is to avoid Britain being categorised as one of the 'second-class' citizens of Europe, shut out from the eurozone in the cold. Cameron wants a more chaotic EU. There is not, in his view, "a single European demos". The more other countries are calling for change, the thinking goes, the less Britain's brinkmanship will stick out like a sore thumb.

Much better for the Conservatives to concentrate on the positives. The growing threat posed by Ukip is neutralised by yesterday's shift, for example. But pushing the troubles of 2017 off into the distant future and focusing on the wins to be notched up in 2015 only goes so far. Unwanted side-effects are inevitable. This speech will destabilise the coalition, as the firmly pro-European Lib Dems line up to fight their partners in government. If the Tories overplay their hand Europe may even contribute to the Lib Dems leaving power a little earlier than scheduled.

That doesn't matter to Cameron. The coalition he joined in the "national interest" could end up being sacrificed in another cause he claims is for the greater good. Cameron will pursue Britain's interests, but yesterday's speech shows they are not his main motivator. The prime minister's real target is the British voter.

WRITTEN BY...