As a rule, world leaders don’t come out of unresolved crisis talks feeling ‘delighted’, but David Cameron appears to be an exception. The prime minister emerged from a European Council summit in Brussels with an agreement that European leaders would listen to detailed proposals on renegotiating Britain’s EU membership. He said he was ‘delighted’ the process was ‘properly under way’.
And so he should be. After weeks of wooing his continental counterparts, it must be gratifying to know they’re at least willing to take the first step and hear him out. But it might not actually reflect a willingness to make a deal.
The timing of Cameron’s push was crucial. The summit was overshadowed by the Greek and migrant crises, which are putting real strain on the EU as an institution. With nationalist parties continuing to do well across Europe (UKIP’s success is part of a wider trend), the last thing the EU needs right now is the British kicking up a fuss about leaving.
‘We should consider British concerns, but only in a way that’s safe for all of Europe,’ said European Council president Donald Tusk. ‘We’ll come back to this in December.’ As that may well be shortly after Greek bailout talks resume, it may not be a much more opportune time.
The ‘concession’ Cameron got after making a ten-minute pitch late at night does sound a little more like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll talk about it next time’ than any real commitment to change. Indeed, Tusk also said very plainly that ‘the fundamental values of the European Union are not for sale [who's buying?] and so are non-negotiable’.
It’s hard not to see this as alluding directly to some of Cameron’s main demands – an opt-out of the principle (some might say ‘fundamental value’) of ‘ever-closer union’ and reducing EU migrant benefits, which comes dangerously close to impinging on the rights of freedom of movement.
Given this resistance and the fact that the necessary changes to EU treaties will require unanimous agreement, prospects of a meaningful renegotiation remain slim. There are effectively 27 chances for national governments to water Britain’s proposals down.
Was Cameron smart to bring this up in the middle of two Mediterranean crises? It probably helped him get firmly on the agenda when otherwise he may have been shot down. But getting on the EU’s agenda isn’t exactly a fast-track for action. Indeed, the prime minister did concede that any reforms that are agreed are unlikely to have been made before an in-out referendum could be held.