David Cameron speech: Chances of Brexit remain high
Denis MacShane wonders if the Prime Minister's renegotiation demands will result in a triumph that can be celebrated both at home and on the continent.
The sharpest moment at David Cameron's London speech on his EU negotiation demands was when his fellow Old Etonian, BBC reporter James Landale, asked him to name a single EU government that had signed up to his idea of making EU citizens wait four years before they are treated equally with British citizens as employees.
The Prime Minister looked left and right, up and down, but could not produce the name of a single fellow Prime Minister ready to dump on his or her nationals and say, in effect, “To help Mr Cameron I am ready to sacrifice your rights and interests.”
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A few days after Guy Fawkes night when England rocks to the fireworks and bonfires commemorating the prevention of a dastardly attempt 410 years to impose a continental ideology on England - the Roman Catholic church and its supporting European potentates ambitious to control Britain - a British Prime Minister was again explaining why he does not like what happens across the Channel.
In January 2013, David Cameron acceded to one of the two main demands of the fervently Europhobe Ukip party, namely to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in Europe or opt for a return to pre-1939 isolationism.
Ukip's other demand is of course that Brexit takes place. Cameron has not yet agreed to the proposition but he did say he “rules nothing out” - a fairly crude threat to his fellow 27 heads of government as well as the three European presidents - Juncker, Tusk and Schulz - that if he does not get what he wants he could lead the Brexit campaign.
Few believe he really wants to enter history books as the Prime Minister who took Britain out of Europe and a close reading of his speech shows that he is asking for very little.
Gone are earlier demands for an end to Social Europe or an opt-out from the Working Time Directive. Gone are the demands for 'full-on treaty change' to use Cameron's curious adjective of earlier this year. Gone are the demands that Britain should control its frontiers and limit entrance to European immigrants. Gone is the demand that the House of Commons should be able to reject EU legislation it does not like.
Instead there was a long disquisition on the noxious nature of five harmless words - 'ever closer union of peoples' (not states) - that appear in the Treaty preamble. This has now become totemic for Cameron. When I was Europe Minister (2002-2005) the UK removed the reference to 'ever closer union' (ECU) as part of the negotiations over the then draft constitutional Treaty which was voted down by the French and Dutch in referendums. (All major referendums on Europe this century have resulted in No votes)
No one noticed the change of language on ECU and no Tory MP thanked me at the time. The phrase which is in the preamble and has no legal effect has not been a cause of concern between 1957 until a year or two ago. It will be easy to draft a declaration that in any future Treaty, the UK can have a protocol added to the treaty saying ECU does not apply.
Equally however, it will be open to any future government not to insist on the protocol being applied. The Prime Minister stressed that there is no possibility of a second referendum - as suggested by Tory Eurosceptic-in-chief Boris Johnson and supported by some Leave campaigners - and that a Brexit decision is irreversible.
This is constitutional nonsense. In the event of Brexit Cameron will resign as Prime Minister and in any event he cannot dictate to his successor or any future Parliament what its policy will be.
Cameron repeated his insistence that EU citizens working in low-pay jobs will have to wait four years before being eligible for the top-up supplement in the pay slip which currently applies. To say to an Irish construction worker that they will be paid less than their British co-workers is clearly discriminatory and against EU law.
One way out of this raised in a report in the Guardian is to make British workers wait four years before they obtain this pay supplement. That would remove the discrimination aspect. Cameron was asked about this by reporters from the BBC and C4 News and refused to answer if the government was looking at denying British employees this pay supplement for four years. If the Government does apply a four-year wait to British workers the problem is solved.
In the end, there is nothing in Cameron's speech that cannot be managed or massaged into forms of words that he can claim as a negotiating triumph. Brussels is good at this kind of verbal legerdemain.
His real problem is not with the EU but with his own party. Since 1997 when the Tories decided to make anti-Europeanism the leitmotif of opposition politics, the British Conservatives have invested massively in Euroscepticism.
To stay in Europe, Cameron's generation of Tory leaders now have to hold their noses, swallow their anti-Europeanism, and decide that Tony Blair was right and the UK being in the EU is in the national interest.
Can they do this and reverse 20 years of anti-EU press coverage, anti-EU business hostility, and deal with the worries over mass immigration that now dominate politics? The chances of Brexit happening remain high.