Credit: Harry Metcalfe/Flickr

The problem with David Cameron's EU negotiation strategy

The PM is negotiating with the EU like it's a business deal, but that's hard with the weight of public opinion around your neck.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Feb 2016

David Cameron has been pulling out all the stops to get a deal with EU leaders on Britain’s continued membership of the club. He stayed up all night in talks yesterday, got up early to resume this morning and even bought the Belgian PM (paywall) a set of French-language Beatrix Potter stories for his young daughter (you can take the man out of PR...).

He’ll need more than charm and hard graft to get the concessions he’s after. The PM brought a serious shopping list to the EU leaders’ summit – an opt-out of the principle of ever -closer union, recognition that the euro isn’t the only currency of the EU, caps on in-work benefits for migrants and the slashing of Brussels red tape.

The negotiations have understandably been fraught, with European Council president Donald Tusk saying ‘a lot still remains to be done’. European leaders are caught in conundrum. A Brexit would be damaging not only to the EU’s economy, as argued recently in MT, but also to its political credibility. No one there wants Britain to leave. But on the other hand, there’s a real limit to how far they will go to keep Britain in – some things Britain will not get, no matter how hard Cameron huffs and puffs.

With that in mind, the PM has approached the negotiations much as a hard-nosed chief executive would in takeover discussions – asked for more than he could realistically get and threatened to leave (or at least campaign to leave) if he doesn’t get what he wants. Much as in business, this hardball strategy is really designed to elicit favourable compromises.

Board room negotiations, however, don’t have audiences. These discussions aren’t just high-level talks between governments – they are theatre in front of voters. For his own political credibility, Cameron needs to appear to get a good deal just as much as he actually needs to get one. In that context, it doesn’t seem smart to demand bold but unrealistic concessions (such as the treaty changes excluding Britain from ever-closer union) only to be forced into a humiliating climb down later.

The fact that the PM is doing it anyway implies either he’s more interested in getting a good compromise than preserving his own standing, or he genuinely believes he can convince EU leaders to give him something so good that even the British public will love it.

There is another interpretation, though. It’s possible all this theatre is really about silencing the Euro-sceptic wing of his own party, showing them that he’s tried and then watching them lose in the referendum (likely, even if Cameron has little to show from his negotiations). Giving the Euro-sceptics the chance of a referendum, the logic goes, will shut them up for a generation or so. An interesting idea, though it hasn’t worked too well with the Scottish nationalists...

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