David Cameron was still fuming on Friday afternoon as he flew back from Brussels after yet another bruising EU summit. If he was angry after failing to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as European commission president earlier this year, this time he was incandescent.
Wasting no time, the prime minister headed straight to the Rochester and Strood constituency in Kent, where Ukip is threatening to take a second seat from the Tories in a byelection on 20 November. There, he tried to put his anger to constructive use, complaining at a round-table discussion with voters that EU summits always go on too long and that there are always demands to seize more UK money.
Cameron’s intention was to paint his trip to Brussels as yet another brave, lone stand on foreign soil against the undesirable Europeans. “They didn’t get my money and I managed to get here in the end,” he said.
Tomorrow the prime minister will make a statement to the House of Commons about a summit that was supposed to focus on joint EU efforts to combat climate change – a subject that used to be dear to Cameron’s heart.
On this occasion, however, his team will not want too much attention to be paid to the EU’s green agenda. Instead discussion will be dominated by the commission’s sudden demand that the UK pay another £1.7bn to the EU budget by 1 December, as a result of a retrospective adjustment going back several years – and the prime minister’s robust refusal to pay up.
Some Conservatives will cite the dispute as evidence that the EU is now beyond the pale, and urge Cameron to bring forward the date of an in/out referendum, currently planned for 2017. Others will want him to say he will be prepared to recommend getting out of the EU if he fails to negotiate a better deal for the UK. It will be a Eurosceptic frenzy at which, almost certainly, not a single pro-EU voice will be heard.
“I think all political parties, not just the Conservatives, are losing faith in the EU as a result of this kind of decision,” said the Conservative MP for Broxbourne, Charles Walker. Not even the pro-EU Liberal Democrats disagree with Cameron in the budget row.
But while there is cross-party sympathy for the prime minister in this instance, Friday’s events highlighted once again the difficulties Cameron is having in executing an EU strategy that he first laid out in his Bloomberg speech in January last year.
In that speech, as he announced that he would hold an in/out referendum, having renegotiated the UK’s terms of EU membership, Cameron’s rhetoric was hopeful and positive. He believed the UK should and could remain in a reformed EU. The goal was achievable and desirable. “We have more power and influence, whether implementing sanctions against Iran or Syria or promoting democracy in Burma, if we can act together,” he said. He cautioned against the UK becoming another Norway or Switzerland outside the EU, having to negotiate access to the single market “sector by sector”.
Being a member meant accepting the rules and taking defeats on the nose. “The fact is that if you join an organisation like the European Union there are rules. You will not always get what you want. But that does not mean we should leave – not if the benefits of staying and working together are greater.” If he could achieve a satisfactory renegotiation, Cameron promised he would argue “with all my heart and soul” to stay in the EU. Intriguingly, as the Financial Times noted last week, the “heart and soul” part of the speech has been mysteriously removed from the official version on the Downing Street website.
It has vanished from the record as the tone of the prime minister’s entire rhetoric has become more strident, as Ukip has begun to threaten the Tories’ right flank. Today’s Opinium/Observer poll shows the extent of the problem. Some 31% of voters now say they would consider voting for Ukip if they thought Farage’s party could win in their constituency; 33% of Tories say the same thing.
Cameron believes he has no option but to respond. When asked recently if he was as passionate about staying in the EU as he was about retaining the Union with Scotland, the prime minister said he felt “about a thousand times more strongly about our UK” than he did about the EU. Gone was the reasoned scepticism of the Bloomberg speech. By appointing Philip Hammond as foreign secretary, Cameron has put a truly hardline Eurosceptic in charge – one who recently said the UK was “lighting a fire under the European Union” by having a referendum.
Cameron has an immediate, urgent problem with countering Ukip – and a longer-term one with trying to bend the EU to his will. Pat McFadden, Labour’s new shadow Europe minister, says there is still plenty of goodwill towards the UK and a desire to keep it in the EU, but that the prime minister risks painting himself into a corner from which he will not be able to escape.
“There is a danger that step by step, perhaps without even fully realising where he is headed, the prime minister ends up arguing for the UK to pull out of the EU, rather than the stated aim of trying to negotiate change and arguing to stay in,” said McFadden. Unlike former British prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, all of whom had their momentous clashes at EU summits, Cameron has a more complex challenge: both to satisfy his Eurosceptic audience at home by trying to block the EU’s federalising intentions at every turn – Juncker’s appointment, budget rises etc – while at the same time being the ‘demandeur’ in a relationship with 27 other countries, seeking change and concessions to suit the UK.
Last weekend the outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, made clear he was growing impatient with the UK’s combination of endless demands and hostile comment. He said that any attempt to impose arbitrary caps on the number of EU citizens entering the UK, as some Tories want, would be illegal. “In principle, arbitrary caps seem to me in contradiction with EU laws,” he said.
He was also clearly angered by Hammond’s comments. “I think this reference to fires and weapons is more appropriate for defence than foreign secretary,” Barroso said.
On Friday, Barroso also held out little hope of Cameron escaping the commission’s demand for extra cash. “I understand the concerns it has raised in London, but any person that has to look with objectivity and honesty to the rules that were approved by the member states has to accept that sometimes these decisions happen,” he said.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German MEP, said the UK should recognise it was member of a club. “Everybody has to pay their dues,” he said. “If you have higher GDP growth than forecast, that also means logically that you have a higher contribution to the community’s budget. That is a logical consequence. That is something that everybody has signed up for.”
As Ukip lurks and the Tories respond, Cameron risks losing the allies he will need to renegotiate the UK’s membership successfully in the longer term. He used to have close relations with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. But these were harmed by the row over Juncker’s appointment.
Further arguments loom, including over whether the UK will opt back into EU home affairs policies, among them the European arrest warrant. In the latter days of John Major’s government, EU leaders longed for a Labour government under Tony Blair. Now they may be thinking that one under Ed Miliband might just be the best – perhaps the only – way to keep the UK in the EU.
Budget demands David Cameron wants an emergency meeting of finance ministers to discuss the Commission’s demands for an extra £1.7bn from the UK, but no date has been fixed.
Home Affairs MPs will vote next month on whether the UK should opt back into dozens of EU home affairs measures, including use of the EU arrest warrant. The home secretary, Theresa May, wants the UK to continue to use the warrant, but many Tory MPs see this as handing more sovereignty to the EU.
Freedom of movement Cameron has vowed to reform rules on freedom of movement within the EU as part of the UK’s renegotiation of its membership terms to prevent so many EU citizens coming to the UK. There has been talk of the Tories wanting to impose caps on numbers. The European cv commission says such a move would be illegal and freedom of movement is a non-negotiable founding principle of the EU.
Ever Closer Union Cameron has said he wants to remove the UK from the EU commitment to ‘ever closer union’. He has said that this is a top priority. But the commitment in the opening to the Treaty of Rome and is hugely symbolic to EU founder members, including Germany, who say they have no intention of changing the Treaty.
Benefit Tourism Cameron wants tougher rules to prevent people coming here and quickly claiming benefits, and sending them to relatives back home. Germany is supportive of change, though their scope may be limited.
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