Cameron’s tantric speech (redux)

We’re a week closer (if only in a logical sense) to David Cameron’s tantric speech and there’s still not certainty about dates, locations or (most importantly) the content.

I’ve discussed this all at some length before, but it was in conversation with some people who have a direct interest in the speech (if not involvement) that another possibility popped up, which looked bad, but not as bad as the other options.

Essentially, this would see Cameron offer a popular vote on the next treaty reform, with the proviso that a ‘no’ would be taken as the UK wanting to leave the EU.

This builds on the existing legislation that requires a referendum on treaty reform, but adds the additional promise that ‘no’ isn’t simply the status quo ante, but withdrawal. This gives backbenchers a big bone, while also giving the UK (and
the EU) a chance to save British membership.

Think of it as an exaggerated version of normal treaty negotiation, where states go in saying that they will fight for their interests, etc. Assuming other states decide the UK leaving is worse than making some concessions (and they might be pretty symbolic), then Cameron can go back, say the UK is ‘winning in Brussels’ and be able to get behind a ‘yes’: backs would be covered, especially in a free vote scenario, a majority procured and then everyone can get back to their day jobs.

It doesn’t take a genius to spot a number of holes in all this. Firstly, it means there’s no real control on timing of a vote, since it’s reactive to treaty reforms. Secondly, it’s not at all clear if any treaty reform is coming any way; no-one (except possibly the Commission) is pushing for it. Thirdly, it’s deeply questionable that other states will want to give the UK anything, especially given the hardball tactics over the Fiscal Compact and the possibility that the UK might still leave any way.

However, it does have a number of advantages, not least that it can be packed as a constructive offer of ‘helping the Union to reform itself’ (even if no-one buys that in the EU). Moreover, it gives at least a possibility for some pro-EU (in
the sense of anti-withdrawal) elements to get something big to show off in support of their case.

But the biggest advantage is that it fits with Cameron’s historic policy of kicking it into the long grass. He would be able to say that he’s giving Britons a choice, but other states aren’t ready to agree on changing treaties, so we have to be patient and wait a little longer. By which time, he hopes, something will have come along.