22 Jan 2013

David Cameron’s Europe speech – the key questions

As David Cameron puts the finishing touches to his long-awaited speech on Britain’s place in Europe, what are his chances of achieving a renegotiation in talks with other leaders?

The prime minister was due to make his speech in Amsterdam last Friday, but decided to postpone it to deal with the hostage crisis in Algeria. The speech has been rescheduled for tomorrow in London.

What is David Cameron likely to say?

The prime minister’s most dramatic announcement is likely to be an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership if he wins the 2015 election.

He will say that he intends to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and put what he has achieved to the public, with a no vote leading to withdrawal from an institution Britain joined in 1973 when Ted Heath was prime minister.

Could Britain end up leaving the EU? The key questions

Mr Cameron would campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed EU: he wants the benefits of the single market, but resents many of the rules imposed on member states at a European level.

According to advance extracts released last week, Mr Cameron was planning to say that while he wants Britain to remain in the EU, the “gap” between Europe and its citizens is growing and this is “felt particularly acutely in Britain”.

He was likely to add: “If we don’t address these challenges, the danger is that Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit.”

As David Cameron puts the finishing touches to his long-awaited speech on Britain's place in Europe, what are his chances of achieving a renegotiation in talks with other leaders? (Getty)

Where does his party stand?

Euro-sceptics in the Conservative party outnumber Euro-enthusiasts. Former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, who believes Mr Cameron is taking a dangerous gamble with Britain’s future prosperity, is in a minority.

Last week, a group of Tory backbenchers, known as the Fresh Start group, published a manifesto for change, which argues that “the status quo is no longer an option” and the prime minister should focus on a “robust but achievable renegotiation of our terms of membership”.

The group, which is thought to be made up of more than 100 MPs, wants Mr Cameron to press for five revisions to EU treaties.

These revisions include an “emergency brake” for all member states on financial services issues, repatriation of powers on social and employment law (including the working time directive), a British opt-out from policing and criminal justice measures, a new legal safeguard for the single market, and the abolition of the Strasbourg parliament.

Foreign Secretary William Hague gave his backing to the group’s ideas in a foreword to its manifesto, saying: “Many of the proposals are already government policy, some could well become future government or Conservative party policy and some may require further thought.”

Former defence secretary Liam Fox, a leading Eurosceptic who has been briefed on the contents of Mr Cameron’s speech, said: “If that is the speech that is finally delivered, a great many of us will think that it’s a speech that we’ve been waiting a long time for any prime minister to deliver.”

What does the prime minister want to renegotiate?

Mr Cameron is unlikely to put too much detail in his speech, but he is likely to be sympathetic to calls for Britain to be exempted from the EU’s labour market rules (including the maximum 48-hour week), in addition to the opt-out from the union’s police and justice policies that is currently being sought.

This would mean Britain being excluded from the European arrest warrant, which makes it easier to extradite people from one EU country to the other.

Other areas where he could seek concessions are the free movement of labour within the EU, the common fisheries policy and the City of London.

What are his skills as a negotiator?

Negotiation at a European level is no easy task, as Mr Cameron found when he took the dramatic step of wielding Britain’s veto in December 2011.

Other EU leaders were pushing for a new treaty to stabilise the euro, but the prime minister argued there were not enough safeguards for Britain’s financial services sector and withheld his consent.

While this put the kibosh on a new treaty, it did not stop other countries from moving ahead and they decided that if a treaty could not be agreed with Britain, they would use another mechanism – the “fiscal compact”.

Mr Cameron was left looking isolated, but he told Channel 4 News at the time that a treaty “inside the EU that wouldn’t have protected our interests properly would be a worse outcome; that’s why I said no”.

He added: “I said when I came to Brussels if I couldn’t get what was good for Britain then I’d be prepared to say no, and I’ve been as good as my word.”

Since those heady days, the prime minister has been pulled in different directions over the EU budget.

In negotiations at a European level, he argued that the EU budget should only rise in line with inflation, rather than the 5 per cent increase proposed by the European Commission.

Back in the Commons in October 2012, his position was tested again, with Tory rebels joining Labour to vote for a real-terms cut in European spending.

Negotiating in Brussels is just one of the tests facing Mr Cameron. He also has to placate his own party in London.

Will he get his way in negotiations?

The initial signs are not encouraging for the prime minister. During a trip to London this month, Gunther Krichbaum – who chairs the Bundestag’s European affairs committee and is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats – said Britain was trying to “blackmail” EU states.

He argued that by seeking a renegotiation, the British government could open a “Pandora’s box”, with other member states picking and choosing what they liked and disliked.

Charles Grant, director of the pro-European Centre for European Reform, told Channel 4 News: “If he thinks he can repatriate any significant powers in policy-making areas, he is wrong. If he asks for treaty opt-outs he will fail, but if he asks for reform he might succeed.”

There are European politician who are sympathetic to Mr Cameron’s line that Europe is over-reaching itself and decisions are often better taken at a national, rather than supranational, level.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said a debate is needed into “whether Europe is not involved in too many areas which could be done at the national level”.

Mr Cameron knows there is little appetite among European leaders for Britain going it alone (it is a net contributor to the EU and a big player in the single market).

And, if push came to shove, he could threaten to use Britain’s veto in future treaty negotiations.

But there are limits to how often he can deploy this weapon and, as we seen in the recent past, no guarantees that he would succeed if he decided to do so.

First, Mr Cameron has to win concessions from other European leaders (hardly a foregone conclusion). Second, he has to satisfy his party that these concessions are substantive (another difficult task). Third, he has to win over the public (a big gamble).

Even a man as confident as Mr Cameron must know that he is playing for high stakes – Britain’s future.