Clearly there will be reluctance on behalf of some EU countries to grant the UK a special deal, a privileged position with full access to the single market with none of the obligations to which they have signed up. It might, therefore, be wise to frame any renegotiation as a bid to reform the EU rather than merely to repatriate powers to Britain.
With Britain’s net payments to Brussels now topping £12 billion, the other net contributors will be very aware of the risk that an unyielding attitude to British concerns might result in a referendum vote against continued membership. The prospect of a hole in the EU budget equal to more than 10% of its total spending will overhang the negotiations.
Who could pick up such a bill? Not the Greeks. Not the Spanish, Portuguese or Irish. Nor the Hungarians or Slovenians. France may be persuaded to contribute a little more (or take a little less in farm subsidies) but the burden would fall squarely on the Germans. We should not, therefore, be surprised at Angela Merkel’s more emollient tone. In a recent radio interview she said that she is open to change in the way EU countries relate to each other and to the Brussels institutions. “In Europe at the moment … we don’t have to do everything in Brussels.”
This too chimes with a more reforming style of renegotiation. The result of such a negotiation would also be more stable: opt-outs tend to be eroded over time – look at Britain’s experience with the Working Time Directive.
The other advantage with which David Cameron will enter negotiations is a hardening of attitudes against the EU, not just in the Mediterranean states, but across the continent. A survey in Germany France, Italy and Spain by French pollster, Institut Français d'Opinion Publique, showed that while a majority in each still thought membership of the EU beneficial, that number is declining with 43% of French, 44% of Germans and 45% of Italians now saying that membership was a bad thing. A recent Eurobarometer poll showed that 60% of citizens now tend not to trust the EU.
Once again, public opinion in other countries can best be leveraged in the service of Britain’s renegotiation by seeking reform rather than unilateral repatriation of powers.
In the run-up to the 2015 general election, David Cameron will bang the nationalist drum and sing a repatriation tune. If he is serious about wanting to change the basis of Britain’s relations with the EU, however, some hard work needs to be done on a reform agenda. He will need a clear vision of what sort of EU he wants and should begin talking in terms of how that will benefit all member states rather than just the UK.
A token redistribution of competences with not do. Unless there is a significant change in our relationship with the EU, Britain will vote a resounding “No” in 2017.