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David Cameron, the Minimalist

Cameron has set the barrier for the EU so low even Jean-Claude Juncker could hop over it.

May 14, 2015

Credit: Number 10 -

Perhaps he didn’t really mean it and is coming to his senses quickly. Or perhaps re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron is finding that satisfying British business that wants to stay in the EU, British Tories who have drunk at the Eurosceptic well for years and 27 other EU heads of government is going to be difficult.

According to Nick Watt, The Guardian’s very well connected political editor, Britain’s re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron now wants very little from the EU in order to satisfy his demand for a “new relationship with Europe.”

In addition, he wants to end the specter — by calling the EU referendum for 2016 — well ahead of the French and German elections in 2017. That, too, is a smart move.

All four of Cameron’s “demands” are points so minimalist — and so far removed from what British Eurosceptics have been demanding — that it is hard to see how the EU, both the Brussels institutions and the 27 other member states, would have problems in conceding them.

The four demands are:

1. Allow at the next treaty discussions, probably after 2020, a protocol saying the UK is not covered by the words “ever-closer union of peoples” which has been in EU Treaty preambles since 1957.

The words were actually removed from the 2004 Constitution and it will be no problem to give UK its pathetic little extra paragraph at the end of the next major Treaty revision, whenever that happens.

2. Reform and limit access to social benefits for EU migrant workers. Again this no big problem, as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has already signaled governments have power to do this.

The only hiccup would be if the proposal is to amend certain directives, which requires the assent of the European Parliament. In addition, some eastern EU governments will not accept discrimination against their citizens. But this is a matter of wording.

3. Give more power to national parliaments. Again this is already in the Lisbon Treaty but it means national parliaments have to create their own network and form a blocking group.

The EU cannot give each individual national parliament the right to veto directives or Treaties, but Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans has long argued for more involvement of national parliaments. Language can be found on this to satisfy Cameron with a promise to examine putting into the next Treaty more reference to national parliaments.

4. Agreement that the Eurozone cannot impose rules that discriminate against non-Eurozone countries. This battle has been won with the ECJ upholding a UK complaint against the proposal that Euro trades can only be carried out in a Eurozone country. The wording will be tricky but not impossible.

If these reports are right, then the Cameron list of what he wants from the EU is so minimalist as not to matter much. It is far removed from limiting immigrants, repatriating powers, allowing the House of Commons to veto EU law and policy and other demands that the Tories, Eurosceptic papers and UKIP have put forward.

There is nothing on Social Europe, so the demands from the CBI and other business organizations for more power for employers and less rights for workers have just been ignored.

Cameron the minimalist

Assuming these minimalist demands are all that Cameron wants, he can have those in time for the summer holidays.

Good news? Not quite. While Cameron’s spin doctors were offering the vision of a quick and cheerful easy deal, his Finance Minister, George Osborne, who is charge of the negotiations got a tongue-lashing in Brussels this week as fellow Finance Ministers told him to lower expectations.

The French finance minister, Michel Sapin, said Britain was like Greece in insisting on tortuous negotiations that would get no where.

Sapin insisted there was no question of changing the EU Treaty which many Tories believe is necessary to lock in any new relationship with the EU. The German Finance Minister, the hardline Wolfgang Schäuble, said that Osborne was “silly” and had made “unnecessary” remarks about the Eurozone to which the UK does not belong.

Small change of usual Brussels wrangling? Yes, but Finance Ministers do not usually insult a colleague on the record and Cameron’s softly-softly spin in London is not matched by the Varoufakis style hectoring from his chief negotiator in Brussels.

One of the most senior Commission officials until recently in charge of social and employment policy said in a Social Europe video discussion recorded at the European Parliament that Cameron’s call for different treatment of British and EU workers was discriminatory and would be rejected by other governments and the European Court of Justice.

It might be possible to reduce the level of benefit paid to children living abroad of workers in the UK to the norms in their home countries. Such ways of changing policy are possible, with the exception of the EU Treaty, which cannot be opened up for discussion until after 2019.

But in private discussions Tory MEPs in the European Parliament were insisting that limits on EU citizens coming to work in Britain did need to be agreed on, if they were to vote Yes to any agreement.

In the end, whatever deal is reached, there is no guarantee the Brits will vote to stay in. Even countries that have high levels of pro-EU feeling like the Netherlands or Ireland change once a referendum is called. The pleasure in voting down what the government elites propose becomes very strong.

Irrespective of any package Brussels fashions for London, Mr. Cameron’s plebiscite on Europe will unleash populist passions which have their own momentum and raison d’être and which very likely will not be assuaged by the minimalist deal he may secure.

The English people will be eager to have their own say on the European project that has for so long been denounced in Britain by many politicians and most of the press.

Editor’s note: This feature was adapted from Denis MacShane’s latest book, “Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe” (I. B. Tauris, March 2015).


David Cameron now wants very little from the EU in order to satisfy his demand for a “new relationship with Europe.”

Cameron’s demands of the EU are so minimalist it is hard to see how the EU would have problems conceding them.

Cameron’s minimalist demands of the EU may not be enough to prevent Brexit.

Cameron has set the barrier for the EU so low even Jean-Claude Juncker could hop over it.