Cameron handles a bad situation well.

Cameron handles a bad situation well.

Britain’s EU Membership: A Phoney Renegotiation and Its Paradoxical Consequences


After months of anticipation and vague promises, the moment had finally arrived for British Prime Minister David Cameron to unveil his plans for renegotiating Britain’s EU membership. In a speech at Chatham House, Cameron outlined his terms, which were then sent as a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. However, the speech revealed very little that hadn’t already been known.

Cameron’s key objectives include formalizing the EU as a multi-currency union to protect non-euro countries like Britain, terminating its symbolic commitment to ever-closer union, making the EU more competitive, and implementing a requirement for new migrants to contribute to the country’s economy for four years before accessing benefits. These proposals reflect the political choices Cameron made three years ago when he announced his intention to reshape Britain’s EU membership and hold a referendum by 2017.

Some have questioned the necessity of this renegotiation. While the prime minister must strike a balance between appeasing Eurosceptic members of his own party and promoting the benefits of EU membership, Cameron’s handling of the issue has leaned heavily towards the former. He has made concessions that his own MPs and their media allies promptly ignore, leaving the impression that he is only meeting them halfway. A more robust approach would have been to assert Cameron’s unwavering support for remaining in the EU while enacting a rolling program of reforms both before and after the referendum.

Instead, Cameron finds himself needing to secure a deal that convincingly tips the balance in favor of remaining in the EU. This task is made even more difficult by the rushed timeline and the distraction of Britain’s reformist allies. The paradox emerges when we consider that Cameron’s speech portrayed EU membership as essential for guaranteeing the country’s security but also refused to rule out leaving it. Furthermore, the list of demands Cameron put forward is modest and patchy, with none of the requests concerning security. Taking Cameron’s speech at face value would be a mistake, as it does not add up and was never likely to.

However, despite the challenges, Cameron played his self-imposed bad hand well. He approached the renegotiation as a charade, characterizing Britain as a country of cool heads and moderate individuals. Cameron positioned himself as the epitome of rationality and moderation, lacking the zeal of Europe’s integrationist intellectuals and the fury of Britain’s most isolationist Europhobes. Implicitly, he admitted that he would support EU membership regardless of the outcome of the renegotiation, making a strong case for remaining in the EU.

Interestingly, Cameron downgraded his most contentious demand, the four-year benefit freeze, from a firm request to a mere indication of the type of arrangement he would like to reach. The six-page letter to Tusk, published after the speech, provided little additional detail apart from bullet points regarding Britain’s role as a non-euro-zone country in an EU dominated by the euro. These points were essentially reactions to recent failed attempts by other European countries to secure British contributions to the Greek bailout, relocate European clearing houses from London, and subject Britain to the euro-zone’s financial regulations.

Thus begins Britain’s messy “renegotiation” and the unofficial start of its referendum campaign. Cameron has not always handled his party’s European concerns wisely, such as his decision in 2009 to withdraw from the center-right European People’s Party, which now seems increasingly self-destructive. Additionally, his Bloomberg speech created expectations for a grand bargain with Brussels that he must now at least give the impression of fulfilling. However, he is correct in positioning himself as the voice of pragmatism in Britain’s EU debate. Moreover, his proposed changes, though somewhat modest, are good for Europe and serve to appease an electorate that may not have in-depth knowledge or strong opinions about the EU but believes a renegotiation endorsed by Cameron will simplify the decision-making process when voting to remain.

Chartham House - British EU Membership
British EU Negotiation