Just what does Cameron want?

With so many interests group inside and outside the UK, how can Cameron satisfy everyone?

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A key problem for David Cameron and his EU agenda is that he does not know what it is he wants.

Is it to keep control over the growing Europhobe wing within his Conservative Party which today embraces him as victor against all odds , but which could stab him in the back tomorrow? Is it to defend the national interests of a more insular and inward looking United Kingdom in view of the winds blowing in from the Scottish Highlands? Or, finally, could it be that Cameron is convinced – as many of us are – of the need to reform the European Union to adapt it to the 21st century and tackle its legitimacy crisis?    

Such a juggling act is often beyond the capacity of today’s political and diplomatic classes, though. We find ourselves yearning for statesmen (and women) with vision to appear. And this vision needs to be broader than those cooked up on a daily basis by whichever staffer is in charge of the political agenda, and one which goes beyond the tinted glass of the official car or the gates of Downing Street, the Élysée Palace or Moncloa. In this globalised world, one great irony is that, so far, it produces leaders with domestically minded, parochial perspectives or even, in some cases, plain nationalists.

Assuming that Cameron has a vision, it is fair to say that nobody has seen it yet. In his brilliant but now forgotten speech at Bloomberg over two years ago (the inner circles of prime ministers and ministers often include great but anonymous speechwriters), the vision was that of an EU based on voluntary cooperation but not incompatible with a more integrated nucleus. Cameron described a Europe of flexible and dynamic networks instead of the straightjacketed journey towards ‘ever-closer union’ of peoples who do not know whether they want it or not.

But this vision of Europe is different to the agenda which Cameron’s government has since followed, far more concerned with the other objectives mentioned earlier and a short-sighted interpretation of British interests in the pursuit of a de facto ‘Brexit’. We see this in the British withdrawal from the provisions regarding EU judicial cooperation, its (anti-European) immigration policy and the planned limitation to the application of the European Convention on Human Rights, the cornerstone of human rights protection across Europe.       

With such disparate interests inside and outside the UK, it is clearly impossible for Cameron to satisfy every constituency nor meet all of the above objectives. He will have to stand on one side or the other of the fence he has made and tick one of his own boxes, choosing the EU or little Britain. Before the referendum (in 2016?) it is difficult to envisage that he will get more than minor or symbolic concessions from leaders on the continent, concerned as they are with Greece, Ukraine and their own, respective national problems to comprehensively alter treaties and pander to the desires of a single member state, however important. What the UK might get, as occurred in Scotland, is a guarantee of more extensive negotiations after a (previous) commitment to stay in has been made.

But an EU which is so prickly when faced with ‘heresies’ of any kind should be asking itself when it lost so much faith in its raison d’être that it now fears referendums and elections. Europe as a whole – of which the EU is only an institution for the common benefit, though a relevant one– should seize this opportunity to breathe fresh life into the forgotten shared vision and refrain from its navel-gazing tendency. What’s needed is an intermediate vision somewhere between the ‘Europe of Nations’ of the past and the ‘United States of Europe’ from a future which may never arrive. Right now, both utopias are sliding inexorably into oblivion.                                                                                                                                            

This article was adapted from an article originally published in Spanish by El Mundo on 29/5/2015

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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