David Cameron’s speech confirms the limited nature of the renegotiation and his determination to succeed and to be able to recommend a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.
There is no change in the issues on which Britain is negotiating: greater EU competitiveness; a ‘red card’ for EU national Parliaments on proposed legislation; the non-application to the UK of the Treaty of Rome commitment to “ever closer union”; safeguards for those countries which remain outside the euro zone; and changes in EU rules on welfare to limit in-country benefits for four years and benefits paid to family members living in the country of origin of EU citizens working in the UK.
On the welfare issue, David Cameron stated his requirement as being that the changes should be legally binding, irreversible and accepted by all. Although he mentioned Treaty change, he did not appear to insist on it.
When he was asked whether he wanted to make changes in the Working Time Directive (often seen within the Conservative Party as the worst example of EU ‘interference’ in domestic social policy) Mr Cameron insisted on the continued validity of existing opt-outs i.e. he made no new demand.
Mr Cameron would not be drawn on the timetable for the referendum but made it clear that he wants to make brisk progress.
Mr Cameron once again ‘ruled nothing out’ if he did not succeed in the negotiation. He stressed Britain’s significance as one of the largest EU economies, able to survive outside. But he spent much more time addressing the costs of leaving the EU (economic and political) than in addressing the price of staying in an unreformed EU. He drew attention to the disadvantages for the UK of either the Norwegian or Swiss models for a relationship between the UK and the EU should Britain leave. When he was challenged in questions to say what advantages he therefore saw, by implication, in the remaining alternatives of an Association agreement on the Turkish model, or of relying on WTO rules, he acknowledged the trap that had been set for him, saying that those questions would only fall to be answered if he failed in his renegotiation. He insisted several times that he expected to succeed.
When it was put to him that some of his own supporters (and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson) accused him of having gone back on his commitment to transform the UK’s relationship with her EU partners, Mr Cameron insisted that the only judgement that would ultimately count was that of the British people – not that of politicians or Parliaments.
Although Mr Cameron’s negotiating objectives have been known to his partners (and more widely) for some time, this was the first occasion on which the Prime Minister has set them out in public himself. The first open collective discussion at the level of Heads of Government will be at the EU summit in December. But the Government will continue to try to negotiate as much as possible behind the scenes, especially with the leaders of France and Germany.
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, will also have an important role to play. Mr Cameron’s agenda is capable of successful negotiation but all other EU Member States, and the European Parliament, have to agree so a process which prevents the issue running out of control is essential.