David Cameron will tomorrow raise the bugle to his lips and sound the retreat on the Lisbon treaty referendum. But he’ll tell his troops that they will fight another day as he pledges to repatriate powers. One thing to look out for is when he plans to trigger a formal re-negotiation and how. We’ve had a Cameron U-turn on the referendum — watch out for a Zagreb zigzag on repatriation.
Some European diplomats think that Cameron is a pragmatic chap who has realised he cannot spend his first six months trying to reopen Lisbon. It would overshadow his fledgling government and could waste precious political capital, particularly if other European leaders ignore his pleas. (Remember that 14 member states need to support Cameron to even start renegotiation talks, while any changes require unanimity.)
Instead these diplomats expect Cameron to play a longer game and try to fit in with the flow of European Union business. He will say he wants UK opt-outs on the social chapter and some other areas. But he may wait until the next treaty comes up, which is likely to be the one paving the way for Croatian accession in 2011.
This would be the path of least resistence. The plan is already to legally enshrine the concessions offered to the Czech republic alongside the Croatian treaty. If Cameron manages to win some opt-outs of his own, it would be a convenient vehicle for them. There may still have to be an intergovernmental conference and some eye-watering give-aways to other European states (the EU budget negotiations should be particularly lively). But it will nevertheless be more diplomatic than sabotaging post-Lisbon EU business.
The downside is that Cameron could have to wait for a year or more. Will the eurosceptics be patient? His most cherished foreign policy goal would also rely on the Croats resolving the Piran Bay dispute, a thorny problem over a tiny strip of land that has a long-forgotten cause. If he is unable to win the concessions he wants in time, he could end up being accused of holding-up Croatian accession. Some folk in Zagreb are probably already getting to work on the William Hague effigies.