David Cameron’s European strategy hinges on the idea that he will be able to repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster, before offering voters a choice between the new settlement and leaving the EU altogether in a referendum.
But the question that remains to be answered is exactly how much will other European countries be willing bend to Britain’s demands for such repatriation? Will the threat of Britain leaving be enough to persuade them to cooperate, or will they be so irritated by the way in which Cameron is going about his project that they happily wave goodbye to the UK?
In a speech this morning in Germany, the German president made it clear that he does not want to see the UK simply pack its bags and leave. Speaking from his Schloss Bellevue, his official residence, Joachim Gauck said:
I listened with interest to the prime minister’s dual message: the “yes” to British traditions and to British interests which is not intended to be a “no” to Europe. Of course, it is up to the British to decide on their own future, but perhaps they are prepared to listen to an appeal from Schloss Bellevue.
Dear people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, dear new British citizens! We would like you to stay with us! We need your experience as the oldest parliamentary democracy, we need your traditions, your pragmatism and your courage! During the Second World War, your efforts helped to save our Europe – and it is also your Europe. Let us continue to engage in discussion on how to move towards the European res publica, for we will only be able to master future challenges if we work together. More Europe cannot mean a Europe without you!
These are heartening words for the British PM. From the tone of President Gauck’s words, it would appear that Cameron’s strategy has not alienated Germany, and that the threat of a UK exit from the EU would be powerful enough to spur our allies into acceding to British demands.
But the prime minister should not be fooled by this rhetoric. In fact, Berlin is almost implacably hostile to the idea of a British repatriation of powers. The Germans think that the best that can be achieved is getting the Commission to drop some of its proposed secondary legislation – especially on social policy, in which both London and Berlin think the Commission should not be involved anyway.
The German government believes getting any other more substantial powers back would require a qualified majority vote, which would be impossible to achieve, especially since it would trigger a wave of similar demands from elsewhere on the continent.
But this will not be enough for Cameron who has promised to take back powers from Europe, not just stop it acquiring more. It doesn’t matter how warm are the words emanating from the German palace – if Cameron cannot persuade our European allies to back repatriation demands, his entire strategy is at risk of collapsing.