by Marc Glendening
Before his hurried return to London following the death of Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron undertook a much-publicised tour of other European countries to promote his campaign to see the EU 'reformed'.
Leaving aside the question of how realistic it is to actually bring about a fundamental change in the terms of our membership of the EU, there is an interesting change in tone coming from the prime minister.
In his long-awaited speech on Europe back in January, the prime minister committed himself to try to renegotiate with the EU the balance of law-making powers between Brussels and Westminster.
The implication was that, should Mr Cameron win the next general election (clearly a big 'if'), he would seek to persuade the other 26 political heads of state to sign a new treaty by 2017 returning a range of significant competences to Britain.
Ed Miliband, in his response, attacked the idea that this was desirable or possible and instead said that Labour would seek a vaguely-defined 'reform' of the EU which would not require treaty change.
In his recent truncated tour, Mr Cameron too spoke of 'reform' and talked in terms of trying to get all member countries to agree to certain, again unspecified, changes. So does this mean that he has given up on the idea of a special deal for Britain?
If so, it is a recognition, though not an honestly conceded one, that a thorough-going renegotiation is indeed impossible. This follows the boycott by the French, German and other EU governments of the 'balance of competences' review that William Hague invited them to participate in. This was conclusive proof, were it needed, that Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande have no intention of allowing the UK to re-write the current EU treaty.
It is not clear where all this leaves Mr Cameron's apparent promise to hold an in-out referendum in 2017. The government has refused to answer what it refers to as hypothetical questions about what would happen if it failed to bring about a successful renegotiation within two years of being re-elected. Would it still honour the referendum pledge?
When the 'balances of competences review', being overseen by Europe minister David Lidington, is completed David Cameron will come under pressure to list specific measures that he will want to see implemented by the EU, whether as a consequence of a renegotiation or collectively agreed reform resulting in a generalised decentralisation.
The Conservatives will then need to define what is the bottom line for them; what would qualify as a success and a failure. At present David Cameron is saying that he wants Britain to remain in the EU, but at any price? Even if he does not succeed in getting back any major powers whatsoever?
written by Marc Glendening - Campaign director, Democracy Movement
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