The stakes could hardly be higher for the prime minister as he prepares his keynote speech on the European Union
David Lidington, the Europe minister, promises in his interview in the Guardian that David Cameron is searching for a British comfort zone within the EU. It will not be easy to find. After years parked in the “too hard” file, our extended coverage of Europe this week indicates how delicate a line the prime minister has to tread in the keynote speech he promises to make next month. He has to set out a strategy that avoids further alienating either Brussels, his backbenchers or British voters who, according to our poll, now favour leaving the EU by 51% to 40%. What used to seem unthinkable is beginning to seem dangerously possible.
The stakes for Mr Cameron, whose lack of interest in building European alliances has cost him dear, could hardly be higher. The easy promises about a redefined relationship where Britain keeps the good bits got short shrift from the council’s president, Herman Van Rompuy. In the muted language of EU diplomacy, the president’s warning against cherry-picking amounts to a sharp rap on the knuckles if the UK plans to bargain by blocking moves towards the financial integration needed to stabilise the eurozone. No wonder the old EU hand Lord Kerr fears that British intransigence in negotiations could end in disaster for Britain. Yet for so long, and so often, voters have been told all about the costs of membership and never about its benefits, that Mr Cameron would find it hard to reverse popular sentiment even if he wanted to.
It is also true that the EU itself is in a mess. The euro crisis may not be spinning out of control as it seemed a year ago, but there is enough uncertainty about the state of its banks and sovereign debt to keep nerves jangling for some time to come. The tensions between net contributor and net debtor states, the loosening of the Franco-German axis, the decline of social integration under the pressure of immigration and rising joblessness have all challenged the post-war vision. The response to the euro crisis has only confirmed the lack of a coherent collective leadership. Where just a few years ago, a multi-tier Europe looked like a catastrophe, now it may be the least worst option.
But whatever shape it takes, it is vital that Britain has an influential voice in any redesign. That means persuading our EU partners that we want to continue to play a big part. Such an argument cannot be made by Mr Cameron over his shoulder while he heads towards the exit. Instead, his keynote speech must explain how Conservatives think Europe should develop and the contribution Britain can make. The chance for a national vote will come, but – as Nick Clegg argued – it can only come at the end of the process, not at its beginning.