With visits to Madrid and Lisbon, the British prime minister, David Cameron, hopes to start the “delivery” stage of his strategy to renegotiate the UK’s new terms of membership to the European Union on a positive note.
He has some reason to be mildly optimistic. Both the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his Portuguese counterpart, Pedro Passos Coelho, support quite a few items on Cameron’s vague list of proposals for EU reform. Deepening the single market for services, reducing red tape for businesses, making Europe more competitive by signing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or even giving a greater role to national parliaments in EU decision-making are the sort of reforms that most EU member states support.
But their welcome parties might fall short of what Cameron desires and needs. The Portuguese and Spanish governments will be reticent to support changes to the principle of free circulation of citizens in the EU. This could affect the rights of Portuguese or Spanish citizens living in Britain or elsewhere.
And as members of the Eurozone and firm believers in the European project they do not understand Britain’s obsessive campaign to remove the “ever closer union” wording from the EU treaties. After all, these three simple words can be interpreted in so many different ways. Even the European Council has recognised that “the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries”.
The awkward partner
Most European countries understand Britain’s frustrations about the EU but they do not understand its constant introspection and sometimes strident Euroscepticism. This is part of Cameron’s problem. To obtain the kind of reforms he wants, the prime minister has to offer more than the occasional charm offensive. No European government will support reforms that will require tricky treaty changes or redrafting legislation if the UK doesn’t show flexibility and some commitment to the European project.
It does not help that Cameron has done so little to cultivate European goodwill towards his country. His strident opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission and his undisguised contempt for the European Parliament have not won him friends in the EU. More recently, his indifference to the eurozone crisis and refusal to help the EU address the refugee crisis have not helped either.
What’s more, the fact that he has concentrated his negotiation strategy on winning the support of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has sent the wrong signal to other European capitals. The message is that British government behaves as if the other 26 members are colonies of Germany and therefore do not count in terms of decision-making.
Unfortunately for him though, they really do count. Some of Britain’s demands can be agreed by qualified majority voting but others have to be decided by unamity. The single market rules on the freedom of movement, and even the negotiation of protocols to address other British fetish demands – such as the change to the wording of the European treaties – fall into the latter category.
Merkel can twist as many arms as she likes but countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia will resist Britain’s attempts to restrict the access to in-work or out-of-work benefits to EU migrants.
But if the prime minister shows some feeling for the European project he still has time to win some of the battles pencilled into his renegotiation strategy.
A face-saving protocol, whereby member states agree to make certain treaty changes in the future is still a possibility. Cameron might also be able to convince his EU partners to re-assert that the freedom of circulation is not an unconditional right to settle in any country of the EU for more than three months (single market rules only grant that right to students, employed and economically self-sufficient individuals).
He may even be able to get another carefully-worded statement on that Eurosceptic bête-noire called European Working Time Directive as well as the commitment to restrict access to welfare benefits from citizens of new member states.
It remains to be seen if these concessions will placate the über-eurosceptics in the Conservative backbenches, but they may be sufficient to convince the British to vote to remain in the EU.