By James LeGrice of Insight Public Affairs

 David Cameron is about to embark on what will likely be the greatest challenge of his premiership. This Thursday at a summit in Brussels, he will formerly outline to European leaders his demands for a reformed European Union. He hopes that by securing these reforms, Britons will vote to remain in the EU when given the option in a referendum that could take place next year. However, Mr. Cameron’s demands present considerable obstacles in the form of EU treaty changes and the prevailing attitudes of prominent European leaders. Even if all runs according to plan, Britain’s “Europe” question could still remain unanswered after the referendum’s results are counted.

By James LeGrice of Insight Public Affairs

 David Cameron is about to embark on what will likely be the greatest challenge of his premiership. This Thursday at a summit in Brussels, he will formerly outline to European leaders his demands for a reformed European Union. He hopes that by securing these reforms, Britons will vote to remain in the EU when given the option in a referendum that could take place next year. However, Mr. Cameron’s demands present considerable obstacles in the form of EU treaty changes and the prevailing attitudes of prominent European leaders. Even if all runs according to plan, Britain’s “Europe” question could still remain unanswered after the referendum’s results are counted.

On the surface, David Cameron’s position may seem contradictory. He made an election promise to hold an in/out referendum on EU membership, yet has repeatedly stated that he does not want Britain to leave Europe. Mr. Cameron is a Eurocritic but not a Eurosceptic, and his position stems from a long-held policy to strengthen the EU’s democratic legitimacy in Britain.

 While Leader of the Opposition, he campaigned unsuccessfully for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Treaty, ratified in 2009, created a President of the European Council, new powers for the European Parliament, and removed national vetoes on a number of policy areas. Britain signed the treaty without holding a national referendum, unlike neighbouring Ireland. This led to a perception amongst many Britons that powers were being transferred to Brussels without their consent

David Cameron pledged in 2009 that if Prime Minister, he would require a referendum before any new powers could be transferred to the EU. Since then, Euroscepticism has reached an all-time high in Britain, and this pledge evolved into a promise for a full in/out referendum. Mr. Cameron has warned EU leaders that support for staying in the EU is ‘wafer thin’. By offering a referendum, Britain’s first on Europe since 1975, David Cameron hopes to secure a European relationship more favourable to public interests that is backed by popular mandate

But the reforms that David Cameron seeks will be a struggle to secure. The four main changes he is expected to push for are a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits, greater protection for non-eurozone countries to ensure that they cannot be outvoted on single market issues, permission for Britain to opt out of the EU’s commitment to ‘ever closer union’, and the ability for national parliaments to band together to block EU legislation.

Some of these reforms would require EU treaty changes, a lengthy process that would require the unanimous backing of all member states. Neither time nor European priorities are on Mr. Cameron’s side for this. The legislation authorising the referendum has set a deadline of 31 December 2017, and the Prime Minister has indicated that he would prefer to hold it in 2016.

Ahead of this deadline, the issues most likely to dominate EU decision-making are the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, Russian containment, and resolving the Greek debt crisis. Undertaking complex treaty change procedures to appeal to British interests will likely be much lower on European leaders’ list of priorities. 

However, the greater challenge lies in the essence of the reforms that David Cameron seeks. His desired reforms are an assertion of national sovereignty and boundaries in line with the union of nation states model advocated by Margaret Thatcher. This runs counter to the trend of the last twenty years towards greater EU integration and centralisation.

This trend is supported by the EU’s main power brokers. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, staunchly advocates greater EU integration and has been labelled an ‘old school federalist’ by David Cameron. Mr. Juncker was one of the architects of the economic and monetary union set up by the Maastricht Treaty and was one of the prime backers of the ill-fated European Constitution.

Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament, has warned David Cameron that there is ‘more or less unanimous’ support among EU leaders for ‘ever closer union’. He has also accused Cameron’s push for reform as an ‘attempt to create new barriers between countries’ and being driven by ‘national resentment’.

Perhaps most notable is the view of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While she is generally sympathetic towards Cameron’s push for reform, and optimistic that a deal can be reached, her view of Europe’s future could not be further from David Cameron’s. Three years ago, Ms. Merkel outlined a vision for a more centralized Europe including a budgetary union. She said, ‘Step by step we must from now on give up more competences to Europe, and allow Europe more powers of control.

Her rationale was that transferring further powers to Brussels and increasing integration would prevent a future Eurozone crisis. Depending on how the Greek debt crisis develops, this may emerge as the favoured solution to protect and restore market confidence in the Euro.

Despite these challenges, it is not impossible for David Cameron to secure some of his desired reforms. Fears over the possible British exit, commonly referred to as ‘Brexit’, are high amongst European leaders. Many may therefore be willing to make eleventh hour compromises to prevent Britain from leaving.

Yet if David Cameron fails to secure tangible reforms in Europe, Brexit is by no means guaranteed. Thus far, Brexit’s advocates have failed to present the public and the business community with a credible alternative for the future of Britain’s foreign trade. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has been the leading voice calling for Brexit for many years, frequently speaks of a future with closer ties to the Commonwealth. Yet this has not been backed up with expressions of interest from Commonwealth countries or a blueprint for how this closer relationship would function. As such, the majority of businesses in Britain support remaining in the EU, and the business voice has significant sway.

It is also not yet fully guaranteed that there will be a referendum. The legislation authorising it is currently before Parliament, and paradoxically, the greatest opposition the bill faced in its first major vote came from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs. They are demanding a 28 day suspension of ministerial activities ahead of the referendum to allow Eurosceptic ministers to campaign for Brexit.

As David Cameron governs with a slim Conservative majority, internal party rebellions could now prove more costly to his legislative programme than during the previous Coalition Government. This could threaten the legislation needed for the referendum.

However, if all goes according to Mr. Cameron’s plan – reforms are secured and the public votes to stay in the EU – it is not unlikely that Britain may have another EU referendum a few years later. Britain has already opted out of the most overt elements of European unity – the Schengen Agreement establishing open borders and the single currency. If Cameron’s negotiations secure greater barriers against European integration, and life in Britain noticeably improves, the voices asking why Britain should remain in the EU at all will find increased strength. The prospect of a Scottish-style ‘neverendum’ on EU membership is very real indeed. So David Cameron has his work cut out for him, and European leaders should take note.