In the years and months leading up to the 2010 British general election – from which he would emerge as prime minister – it seemed that David Cameron aspired to be more than a caretaker premier. He did not want merely to lead the next Conservative government, a passive product of the electoral cycle; rather, it looked as though he had a new vision of post-Thatcherite civic conservatism with a liberal inflection. Five and a half years on, this illusion has evaporated entirely.

The proposals now agreed with Mr Tusk, which will serve as a basis for the negotiations with Brussels, does include an “emergency brake” that allows the UK to stop EU migrants claiming benefits – however only for a shorter period than the 4 years sought by Mr Cameron. It likely won’t come into force until a year after the EU referendum.

Other features of the proposed deal include:

  • Sovereignty: Allows Britain to opt out from  “ever closer union”, a normative goal of European federalists. Aims at giving national parliaments greater authority to block EU legislation.
  • Eurozone: Cameron wants to secure the recognition that the euro is not the only currency of the European Union. It also ants to be exempt from eurozone bailouts.
  • Competitiveness: Deregulation of the the single market’s rules and general weakening of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Far from taking proactive leadership the prime minister has lurched from crisis to crisis, barely keeping his head above water. It was by luck rather than skill that he narrowly missed presiding over the break-up of the British union in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence. The next challenge will be to avoid self-imposed British exile from the European Union in the referendum now due before the end of 2017, but most likely held sometime in 2016.

In November – six months after running an election campaign promising an in-out vote – Cameron belatedly announced the details of his renegotiation demands, which had hitherto extended no further than the vague wish to “reform and stay in”. The document the prime minister then presented, in the form of a letter to the European Council leader Donald Tusk, is an odd construction. Half of it lays out some perfectly reasonable proposals for EU reform, most of which are either already taking place under the Juncker Commission or are facilitated by existing treaty law. The other half, meanwhile, is so absurdly outlandish that it could only have been formulated as a concession to the hardline Eurosceptic lobby within the Conservative Party and the British press.

The prime minister claimed that his government’s agenda could be summed up in one word: “flexibility”. Precisely what this means, however, was not explained. Presumably it is there to invoke the instinctive neoliberal aversion to “red tape”, but no mention is made of the Better Regulation project now being undertaken by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans to streamline the EU legislative process and improve the environment for business. Nor is any attention drawn to the way in which the Council and Parliament have altered their democratic procedures to speed up decision-making: the former, by adopting qualified majority voting in place of clunky unanimity; the latter, with the formation of a de facto grand coalition between Christian- and social-democrats. Who, indeed, could disagree with the idea of “flexibility”, so broadly defined?

Another cause célèbre of the Eurosceptic Right in Britain is the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, one of the three pillars of the UK’s unwritten constitution. Cameron’s proposal is to allow national parliaments powers to collaborate and veto EU legislation if they find it wanting. Quite apart from the immense additional tier of bureaucracy this would introduce into European politics, Cameron’s advisers have clearly not read the Lisbon Treaty, a protocol of which encourages member-states to arrange their input into the EU legislative process in whatever manner best suits their particular democratic system. Instead of raising this as a negotiating point, Cameron could very easily follow the Dutch practice of consulting its legislature in advance of Council meetings.

On these points, Cameron makes reasonable demands, even if it is clear that no renegotiation of Britain’s membership would be required to act on them. What, however, are we to make of the idea that British businesses should not face “discrimination” because they do not operate in the same currency as their Eurozone counterparts? If the whole point of the common currency is that it facilitates economic activity across borders, the prime minister – supreme advocate of the free market that he is – surely cannot expect legislation to defend the interests of firms that stand outside it. This would be state aid par excellence.

And then, of course, there is immigration. There is no issue in British politics on which UKIP dominates more, and no issue on which the Conservative leadership more fears losing ground to the Right. The longest section of Cameron’s letter deals with it, and yet yields the fewest concrete proposals of all. The prime minister must recognise that, on one thing at least, Nigel Farage is correct: Britain can make no change to the free movement of peoples whilst it remains in the EU. (This holds true despite the fact that only three of the four EU freedoms are acknowledged in the section on the single market.) The most any British government can do on intra-EU migration is restructure the welfare system so as to prioritise citizens over migrants, but this is a matter of domestic politics, not international diplomacy.

As at so many points in Cameron’s political career, the promise of bold vision has given way to little more than a meagre public relations exercise. This referendum has been inflicted on the British public (and on the rest of Europe) by a chain of compromises, accidents and short-sighted opportunism, and still holds the potential to pull not only the European but also the British union apart. It is uncertain what concessions, if any, Cameron will extract during the negotiation process. It also uncertain whether, even if he succeeds in keeping Britain in, the EU will be any better off for have endured this rigmarole.


James Bartholomeusz is the Editor in Chief of the Project for Democratic Union, where this article was first published