Cameron’s speech: 3 things for Europeans to note

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David Cameron finally delivered his much trailed and much postponed speech on Europe this morning. Predictably, much of the commentary is focused on what others wanted him to say – to be clearer about the benefits of the EU, or make clear that Britain was standing at the exit door of the europlane with a parachute strapped to its back, ready to sever ties with the Union once and for all.

But rather than add another voice to the cacophony, let’s take a simple look at the speech from a European perspective, and what Cameron was trying to achieve.

  1. He was making the case that the EU of the moment needs changing for its own good, not just for that of the UK. Notwithstanding further integration within the eurozone, he argued that the entire EU needs to face up to the “over-riding purpose” of securing prosperity and the challenge from “the surging economies in the East and South.” This will resonate in several mostly northern EU members, who could justifiably be edgy about an EU without Britain and its ability to grow rather than simply protect. And this brings us to the next point.
     
  2. Cameron was making the basic case for a winnable referendum. Make no mistake: the referendum is clearly an unavoidable fact in the British political landscape. The PM also made it clear that he will campaign for an “in” (as will the other main parties), provided he can secure something that he can present to the British people as a new deal for a Europe that they can see the benefit in. This is where those nervous northern EU members come in – although it can hardly look as though they’re bowing to British pressure in public, the Germans are the key players here. And as Peter Kellner’s paper for ECFR suggests, the British people are likely to vote in favour of the EU if they can be persuaded of the practical case for Europe – and that means a focus on the economic benefits of membership, with a promise of some sort of renegotiation (however hard this may prove – which is why Cameron was wise not to be too detailed about what this involves…).
     
  3. This will not go away. As we noted in our “New Political Geography” compendium, EU politics begins on the streets of the individual countries of Europe, not in Brussels. Britain’s politicians are concerned with what happens in Britain well before they care about what happens in Europe (membership of the euro might have changed this). Arguably the leaders of all three major parties would be quite happy if the European issue simply died away and they could concentrate on matters that most Brits think of as much more important – such as the debt and the economy. But it’s not going to go away for simple reasons of politics, and that means that the rest of Europe will just have to get used to what many probably see as the irritating distraction of British Euroscepticism while they continue to try to sort out the (continuing) euro crisis.

If pro-Europeans are looking for a crumb of comfort in this debate, then perhaps it is that at such a seemingly Eurosceptic moment, the Conservative prime minister of Britain has made a very important speech that fundamentally argues in favour of British membership of the EU. He wouldn’t have done this if he thought this message would fall on stony ground in the British electorate, or if he did not see the value in the EU itself. 

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