In a way, you have to sympathise with David Cameron. With so many different audiences to consider, both at home and abroad, writing his keynote speech on Europe must have been a tortuous process. That probably explains why it was delayed so many times, and took over six months to write.
Perhaps his most important audience were his own eurosceptic Members of Parliament, who have fiercely criticised him over his support for the EU and made a list of powers they want repatriated back to the UK. He also had to try and claw back support from Conservative voters, many of whom are defecting en masse to the far-right UK Independence Party. In part then, this was an exercise in party management, trying to restore unity amongst Conservatives who were threatening to fall apart over this divisive issue.
However, Cameron also had to appeal the other half of his party who are broadly pro-EU. In addition, he had to satisfy British business, which is overwhelmingly pro-EU membership, and his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, who have long been the most pro-European British political party. Finally, he had to make sure he didn’t provoke his European partners or unsettle major international allies such as the US, who have recently expressed their concern over a potential British exit from the EU.
This perhaps explains why Cameron’s speech appeared a little schizophrenic at times. For example, he said it was important for Europe to work together to tackle crime and terrorism, but then hinted that the UK should opt out of EU police and judicial cooperation measures. He went on to stress that now was not the right time to make a decision about the future of the UK’s EU membership, but still went ahead and promised a referendum in 2017. Most puzzling of all, he said that for the EU single market to function it needs a set of common rules, but then he talked about negotiating special opt outs from single market regulations for the UK.
It is this last point which leaders across the continent have been quick to criticise. And, perhaps intentionally, they ignored Cameron’s plea that everyone should stop using metaphors to describe the UK’s relationship with the EU. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle emphasised that “cherry-picking is not an option.” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was harsher, saying that “”if Britain wants to leave Europe, we will roll out the red carpet for you.” Fabius went on to say that it is as if the EU is a football club, and the UK has joined and is now asking everyone to play rugby. Further South, Spanish Foreign Minister said the UK is playing “a very dangerous game,” while Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has said the EU does not need “unwilling Europeans.” In Poland, Minister Radosław Sikorski said the UK is becoming “a country under special care,” requiring special attention so it does unwisely exit the EU.
Cameron might find some comfort though in the reaction of Angela Merkel, who said she is prepared to talk about “British wishes” and find a compromise. The Dutch, Czech and Finnish also all seemed to support his calls for a reformed, less regulated EU. It seems then that across Europe there are pockets of enthusiasm for enacting some of the reforms the UK is calling for.
However, European leaders will not accept that the UK completely renegotiates its EU membership, obtaining all the benefits of the single market while opting out of all the bits they don’t like. If Cameron’s great gamble is to succeed he will have to get other European countries to agree to a platform of EU-wide reform, and ignore some of the wholly unrealistic demands being made by members of his own party. The best way to achieve this will be by establishing a constructive dialogue with his European allies, not by trying to blackmail them into giving special treatment to the UK.