Cameron’s incompetent negotiation

A report in the Economist discusses the ongoing talks between the UK and the EU, “LIKE blows from a fearsome heavyweight, the crises keep raining down upon Europe’s battered brow. Refugees, terrorism, Syria, Russia, Greece and Britain’s threat to quit the European Union: collectively they have left the EU punch-drunk and gasping for breath. But one of these problems is different from the others”.

The author makes the valid point that “The migration crisis was a product of epic forces outside Europe’s borders; the Greek row stemmed from a mismatch between democracy and the rules of euro membership. But Britain’s “renegotiation” of its EU membership, ahead of an in/out referendum to be held (probably) next year, looks like a self-inflicted wound. Why should semi-detached Britain seek yet more special treatment? Europeans are exasperated. Foreign friends, from Hong Kong to America, are baffled. All are worried. How did it come to this? For months negotiations proceeded quietly as David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, took his concerns to other EU leaders and Eurocrats in Brussels oversaw technical talks. British diplomacy was conducted “very skilfully”, says one. Even the French were starting to believe that Britain was seeking not to wreck the project, but to secure its place within it”.

The piece adds that “Hopes were high that a deal could be struck at an EU summit later this month. But soon after Mr Cameron detailed his proposals in a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the wheels came off. Having previously hinted that he was open to discussion on his fourth “basket” of reforms, on migration, Mr Cameron suddenly reverted to an old demand. The EU treaties must be changed, he insisted, to allow Britain to impose a four-year delay before paying in-work benefits to migrant workers. The gambit flopped. On December 3rd Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, told Mr Cameron that he could not expect rapid acquiescence to such a contentious request. Optimists now hope for a deal in February”.

Correctly the piece notes “Some of Mr Cameron’s other requests are reasonable; some are strange but achievable. But on welfare Mr Cameron is trafficking in trivia. By most accounts his proposals would do next to nothing to reduce EU migration: frustratingly, Britain’s labour market is simply too open and successful. Worse, he has picked a fight that may prove unwinnable. Every other government opposes changes that would violate the cherished principle of non-discrimination. Brussels’s finest legal minds will spend the next two months trying to square the circle. But whatever solution emerges will be a long way from the “fundamental, far-reaching” EU reform that Mr Cameron once promised. The problem is “very intractable”, frets a British official who is involved in the talks”.

The report goes on to mention that “What will Mr Cameron do? He is said to believe that his powers of persuasion can override the objections of pettifogging bureaucrats, including his own. He might be right; politics often trumps law when the EU is in crisis. But his form is not good. Many fear a repeat of previous diplomatic misadventures, such as Mr Cameron’s “veto” of an EU fiscal treaty in 2011, which left Britain looking exposed and inept, or his attempt to block the 2014 appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, which he persisted with long after it became clear that he would lose the vote. For most Europeans the prime minister’s recent antics are of a piece with an approach to negotiation they have never understood. “Just who is advising him?” asks one exasperated German”.

The piece goes on to mention “When Mr Cameron began his quixotic quest for EU reform, many predicted he would need a scrap to demonstrate to British voters that his renegotiation was not empty. Perhaps he will emerge in February bloody but unbowed, wielding a “concession” on benefits that he can sell at home. But for the moment he looks boxed in. It is little wonder that fears of Brexit are growing. One concerned British official now puts the chances at 30-40%. Still, Britain’s partners will not allow irritation to cloud their judgment that the EU remains stronger with Britain inside than out. Its liberal preferences are shared by many and its defence clout valued by most. This week Mr Tusk urged compromise with Britain, warning that the issue was “destabilising” Europe. There is also a question of balance, says Anand Menon, a British academic: the Germans do not want to be left with the French; the French do not want to be left with the Germans; and no one else wants to be left with the French and the Germans”.

He concludes “Such calculations may have fuelled complacency in London. Some in No 10 murmur that the EU’s endless crises might help their case: best to give the troublesome Brits what they want and move on. But that is a stretch, as well as dispiritingly small-minded. Mrs Merkel and others certainly seek a speedy resolution to the problem, if only to get back to some proper work. They want Mr Cameron to hold his referendum as early as possible. But when the EU’s signature projects, from the euro to Schengen, are tottering, they are hardly minded to let an irascible Britain weaken the union’s foundations yet further. Britain, they might add, is not the only country with domestic politics. Even friendly countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, fear that obliging Mr Cameron would boost their own Eurosceptics. Negotiators in Brussels were so worried that other governments would use the talks to seek Britain-style carve-outs that they issued pre-emptive warnings that none should try”.

It ends “Somewhere in a parallel universe exists an alternative renegotiation that Britain would be well placed to lead, focused on the EU’s persistent economic torpor and its weak, fragmented foreign policy. Instead, the EU must grapple with Mr Cameron’s parochial concerns while confronting some of the toughest challenges it has ever faced. Vexing this may be; heavyweight it is not”.

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