Cameron is up a creek in Europe. How does he plan to negotiate his way out?

Two paragraphs translated from last week’s NRC Handelsblad should serve to underline the size of David Cameron’s task in renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe.

Here’s the first one:

“What from his point of view looks like a matter of self-preservation is seen on the continent as blackmail: do what I want, or the UK will leave and in doing so plunge the EU into an existential crisis. “Help me or I’ll shoot myself in the head” – it’s strongly reminiscent of the current Greek tactic to release more emergency aid from the EU. And European policymakers, as the Greeks discovered months ago, are deeply resistant to the idea.”

Cameron’s first problem is a chronic lack of self-awareness. Britain has long been seen as a sleeping partner at the European feast, only stirring periodically to have its drink refilled and pinch the best desserts from the trolley. The Tories would be negotiating from a bad enough position, but it’s been made worse by Cameron’s obstructive antics over the last five years. Europe has not forgotten his clunking use of the veto in 2011, torpedoing the efforts of the other 26 countries to salvage the euro at the height of the financial crisis, or his petulant opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker, which continued even after Juncker’s appointment was confirmed. Not everyone in Europe was convinced Juncker was the best man for the job, but Cameron stood apart in decrying the outcome of a decision taken by the European Parliament. That is simply not how Europe does business.

Europe has grown tired of the Tories’ muffled threats to quit if they don’t get their way. True, Cameron is negotiating on behalf of Britain, not Greece. The EU will fight hard to keep one of its major nations in the fold. Germany needs Britain as a counterweight to its own power, particularly with France in its current weakened state, while nobody is in a hurry to give up easy access to the enormous amounts of capital floating round London. And it would be an undeniable setback for the EU to lose a nation, particularly one off its largest members, after half a century of continuous expansion. But if Cameron continues in his current vein, sheer frustration may drive Europe’s leaders to call his bluff.

NRC Handeslblad went on:

“Some British views are seen as downright bizarre. Cameron demanded in 2014 that the reference to ‘ever closer union’, the supposed progress towards European integration, be scrapped from the preamble to the EU treaty. It reeked too much of making Europe a single political entity. But in Brussels the concept of a political union fell out of favour long ago. ‘The time of an ‘ever closer union’ in the European Union in every possible area of policy is past,’ [Commission Vice-President] Frans Timmermans wrote to the Dutch Parliament in 2013, when he was foreign affairs minister. So much fuss over one sentence, when changing it would involve a change to the treaty and therefore debates in national political arenas or even referendums.”

This is the second problem: the Tories are years, if not decades, behind the debate in Europe. It doesn’t help that few of them have a clue how the place works. Cameron’s only successful experience of negotiation was his successful mauling of the LibDems in 2010, but he will come up against more skilled dealmakers in Europe than Nick Clegg. Negotiation involves give and take, but Cameron has given no indication of what he is prepared to trade off in return for his demands to repatriate powers. And he is aware that any sign of a concession on the British side will be characterised as weakness and horse-trading back home. So instead he is asking Europe to hand powers back to London on one hand, while withdrawing others unilaterally, such as repealing the Human Rights Act. To the Europeans it’s like being asked for a bus fare by someone who’s setting fire to your garage.

Say what you like about EU politics, and many people do – obscure, wasteful, undemocratic, out of touch and run by second-rate careerists – but Europe is justly proud of building 50 years of peace and stability on the back of consensus and forging deals between unnatural bedfellows. David Cameron’s isolationist stance over the last five years has left him more compromised than Dominique Strauss-Kahn as he heads into the talks that will set the tone for his in-out referendum. There is every likelihood he will emerge with a weak deal that he will struggle to defend against a campaign that promises to be even more shrill and vicious than the one the Tories waged against electoral reform. And the Europeans will look on in solemn bemusement and say: “You got yourself in this mess, mate: now get yourself out, and no, we’re not lending you a paddle.” Europe would be loath to lose Britain, but it would sooner cast its sleeping partner out into the night than risk letting it poison the feast.

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