Over the last two and a half years, this site has charted the shrinkage of the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation demands. His initial aims have vanished, and what is left is disturbingly slight – as Daniel Hannan argued on Thursday.
Yesterday saw yet more problems for the renegotiation, as Downing Street conceded that it would not be possible to reach agreement even on these very limited requests before Christmas, as they had hoped. It shouldn’t be a great shock – the EU’s problems (security, the refugee crisis, Greece’s tottering economy) grow ever greater, so Cameron’s renegotiation slips down the agenda. As a result, the likelihood increases that the referendum itself won’t take place until 2017.
There are two major problems standing in the Government’s way.
First, the campaign to persuade other EU Member States has been lacklustre and disorganised, apparently without a specific person to take the tiller and steer it. While there has been talk of one Tory figure or another (Osborne, Hague, even Major) being put in sole charge, that hasn’t come about, and the lack of direction shows. Any activity seems to take place in fits and starts, producing a campaign which is both disjointed and too slow to even appear to get the job done in the very short time available.
Second, even though the demands have shrunk drastically, there is little sign that the EU’s member states are unanimous even on these limited topics – and unanimity is what is required. When the idea of restricting benefits for EU migrants first came to prominence, there was concern that the EU’s courts might force Britain to apply it to their own citizens on a technicality. That would be bad enough, but now the Czech government wants that to happen as a matter of policy. Even if the renegotiation was prosecuted better, it would still run up against the innumerable disagreements between the EU’s members. While Chancellor Merkel is a powerful figure, even she cannot magic up harmony and concord among the leaders of the EU.
Those of us who believe Britain should leave this failed experiment will find this last point particularly unsurprising. One strong argument for Brexit is that the EU is a dysfunctional mess of divergent economies and polities – we would be far better living amicably as neighbours than all trying to share the same house, misgoverned by rules which aren’t fully to the liking of anyone.
The conventional wisdom is that the Prime Minister has cut back his list of renegotiation demands in order to reach a swift agreement, in which he can claim victory and then hold an early referendum. That probably was his hope; it would certainly make political sense. Unfortunately for him, each aspect of that plan is foundering while the clock ticks down.