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16th Apr 2024

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Cameron's big EU speech fails to calm rebels

  • Cameron, pictured left, and EU chief Herman Van Rompuy in London. (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

David Cameron ended 2013 as he started it: harried by his own Conservative party over Europe and trying to persuade it not to vote for an early referendum on EU membership.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

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  • Ukip leader Farage, pictured right, is gobbling up Tory votes in the run-up to elections (Photo: Jennifer Jane Mills)

In January, the UK Prime Minister promised to renegotiate his country's powers vis-a-vis the EU before holding an in/out referendum in 2017.

He focused on the "democratic deficit" in EU institutions and proposed to beef up the role of national parliaments in EU law-making. He also wanted to strip down EU rules on social affairs and employment.

His speech, intended to outflank Nigel Farage's Ukip, a British eurosceptic party which is gobbling up Conservative votes, delighted the Tories.

But the euphoria did not last.

Cameron's assertion that British public support for the EU is "wafer thin" is accurate, but his EU plan faces several obstacles.

First, the idea the other 27 EU leaders will agree to a tailor-made package of opt-outs to satisfy the most eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party is fanciful.

Second, no matter what he gets from renegotiation, a large proportion of Conservative supporters do not trust him on Europe and want to leave the EU as quickly as possible.

The idea that Cameron is not eurosceptic enough may come as a surprise to some onlookers.

But such is the level of suspicion against Cameron that one Conservative backbench MP, James Wharton, is piloting a bill through parliament to legally guarantee there will be an in/out vote by the end of 2017.

The other big problem is that both the EU renegotiation and the referendum depend on the Conservatives winning the next British election in 2015.

Meanwhile, in the months after Cameron's big speech, the business lobby has come out in favour of continued membership, with a drip-drip of multinationals warning they would scale back UK investment if it quits the Union.

Cameron is not alone in wanting a larger role for national parliaments and a scaling back of EU powers.

Mark Rutte's Dutch government has also started a "balance of competences" review.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful politician, has indicated the European Commission should do more to cut red tape instead of expanding its remit.

Despite the obstacles, the prospects of the UK holding an in/out vote are greater now than at any time since its last EU referendum in 1975.

The opposition Labour party has not yet matched the referendum promise, but it will come under more pressure to do so as the 2015 election nears.

But as Cameron found to his cost five years ago, when he promised and then reneged on a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, staking your word on the outcome of uncontrollable events is a dangerous business.

The Conservative party's fixation with the EU has damaged its unity for more than 20 years.

It has ended the careers of some of its brightest politicians. It may yet claim Cameron.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2013 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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