David Cameron appears to be trying to dangle some red meat in front of his restive backbenchers by holding out the prospect of using any imminent EU treaty change to try and repatriate powers back from Brussels to London.
Speaking after meeting fellow European leaders over the weekend, the PM said:
This is the right time to sort out the eurozone’s problems, defend your national interest and look to the opportunities there may be in the future to repatriate powers back to Britain. Obviously the idea of some limited treaty change in the future might give us that opportunity.
The important word here is “limited”. Downing Street has been saying for a while that any treaty change following a new eurozone bailout package would not affect the UK, and would therefore not trigger a referendum under the new EU Act.
But now Number 10 is trying to float the idea that even limited treaty change could see Britain lobbying for powers to be repatriated from Brussels to London as part of the agreement. A spokesman for the PM said on Monday morning:
If the eurozone decides the best way to [fix the euro] is to underline it by some sort of treaty change, we will be able to express our view on that. We are not going to say in advance of any negotiation precisely how we are going to pursue that.
Precisely what we might seek to achieve in any upcoming discussion about changes to the treaty – even limited treaty changes – precisely what we want to get our of that process – is something we will establish at that time when and if there is a proposal in the table.
This may be calculated to appease eurosceptic Tories, who are lining up to defy the government this afternoon by voting for a backbench motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
But it is not likely to please the party’s coalition partners. Nick Clegg’s view on repatriation of powers is this:
The UK’s national interest is best served by developing a reformed, competitive, open and productive european economy. That should be the focus of any future EU discussions.
For the moment, the Lib Dems are happy to sit back and watch the Tory party tear itself apart over Europe. But once the drama of this evening’s vote is out of the way, Cameron will be under increasing pressure to push for repatriation of powers, and that is not likely to do much for coalition harmony.