Prime minister risks handing initiative to Britain’s EU opponents by unveiling potpourri of proposals
In reaching out to eurosceptics will David Cameron end up undermining British interests?
In a series of television and newspaper interviews, the prime minister and other minsters moved on Sunday to neutralise UKIP by promising to adopt a tough approach to the EU.
Cameron told The Sun he was prepared to veto the next seven year EU budget if the EU does not follow the example of most nation states and agree to slash spending. Theresa May told the Sunday Times that Britain is interested in imposing restrictions on the free movement of people around the EU.
That is a wonderful menu for eurosceptics. The problem is that these proposals appear not to relate to the two vital national interests Britain needs to protect in all EU negotiations over the coming months. These are: preserving Britain’s rebate in the budget negotiations and guaranteeing the integrity of the EU single market when the rules of the eurozone are rewritten.
Every word uttered by every minister over the coming months should be directed at achieving those two goals. By tabling a series of other demands the government will complicate the picture and strengthen the hand of opponents (France) that would dearly love to end Britain’s budget rebate and ensure that the single market is run by the 17 members of the eurozone rather than by all 27 members of the EU.
The prime minister also needs to be careful about pledging things he cannot deliver:
• Theresa May’s idea of limiting the free movement of people through the EU can only be achieved in full by rewriting the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding treaty. This had at its heart the four pillars of what is now the EU – the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.
In the highly unlikely event that Britain succeeded in curbing the free movement of people, France would probably demand an end to the free movement of services – a vital UK interest. So May’s idea will probably mean Britain will press for more modest measures such as imposing restrictions on the movement of citizens from new member states. So tiny Croatia will suffer, as will Turkey if it ever joins. How will this fit with another British aim – full Turkish membership of the EU?
• The prime minister now regularly floats the idea of seeking people’s consent for a reconfigured EU once new governance arrangements for the eurozone have been agreed. He is hinting there may a referendum but indicating that consent may simply be sought at the general election after next.
The prime minister would like to use these negotiations to reconfigure Britain’s relationship with the EU by repatriating social and employment laws. But if he presses hard in these areas what will happen when he asks eurozone leaders to ensure that the single market is still run by all 27 members of the EU?
Eurosceptics will never forget if they think they have been promised goodies – a referendum, restrictions on the movement of people – and then find the reality falls a long way short.