Richard Whitman
Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme
As his proposals move from the speculative to the concrete, the UK prime minister needs a multi-pronged success at the forthcoming European Council meeting.
David Cameron speaks to the media after a European Council meeting on 18 December 2015 in Brussels. Photo by Getty Images.David Cameron speaks to the media after a European Council meeting on 18 December 2015 in Brussels. Photo by Getty Images.

David Cameron meets with his fellow European heads of state and government on 18-19 February for what looks set to be the final set piece battle in his attempt to re-negotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership. The end game of the negotiations is, however, the most dangerous moment for Prime Minister Cameron’s renegotiation strategy, as his new terms of EU membership have moved from speculation and hypotheticals to a set of concrete propositions.  

To have what can be considered a successful European Council meeting Cameron will need to achieve four outcomes.

Reach an agreement

Crucially, and most obviously, he needs to reach a final agreement. This is still not a foregone conclusion. It requires closing the gap on two main areas of disagreement which still remain. Firstly, there are still disagreements on the ‘emergency brake’ provisions, or ‘safeguard mechanism’, which would allow for arrangements to limit in-work benefits for new EU workers entering another member state. Even the draft declaration left out details on how long the brake would last initially or the duration of possible extensions.

Secondly, there are still disagreements on the proposed arrangements about relations between eurozone and non-eurozone countries. The French are concerned that current proposals would allow for differential treatment between London and the EU’s other financial centres. Cameron needs unambiguous agreement in these two areas to allow him to claim that he has directly tackled public concerns on ‘welfare tourism’ – perceived by the public as driving migration to the UK – and preserve the position of the City of London as the EU’s major financial centre.

Show improvement

Second, the prime minister needs an agreement that can be presented as an improvement on the draft summit conclusions that were released last week. Cameron and his team have already experienced a considerable press mauling, notably from traditionally Conservative Party supporting newspapers, on the Tusk draft proposals. The final conclusions will be catapulted into what is already a febrile British media environment. The phrasing and nuancing of the final text will be the subject of forensic examination. Consequently the prime minister will want to point to areas in which he has strengthened the agreement further to allow him to claim he has achieved best possible deal to put to the British public in a referendum.

Fight an all-night battle (and then claim victory)

Third, there needs to be a moment of high drama at the European Council. European Council meetings are highly controlled environments whose intended outcomes are very carefully prepared by officials and run to meticulously planned timetables. Mr Cameron needs to upend this, to give the impression he has pushed as hard as he can and fought to the last.  Ideally, Cameron would see the summit timetable disrupted, with the agreement struck after unscheduled all-night negotiations.

A place in history

Fourth, the European Council needs to be successfully presented to a UK audience as a turning point in the relationship between the UK and the EU. Cameron promised, at the outset of the renegotiations, that he would reach an agreement that would change the UK’s relationship with the EU. Unlike previous important European Council meetings held in more grandiose settings, the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels will not provide the visuals that communicate a dramatic moment. So the (British) rhetoric on the final negotiations and the agreement will need to be suitably monumental. The post-summit press conferences from French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be the most closely watched by the British press looking for comments that conflict with the ‘historic’ account David Cameron will present.

Mirroring events in another Belgian town 200 years ago, David Cameron will hope that the Germans will come to his rescue.  Germany is the key swing state within the EU and there will be no final agreement without Germany’s full political support. Germany has been the subject of extensive British wooing to ensure a positive outcome for the UK. In contrast, French President Hollande presents the least predictable participant for David Cameron. France is the member state which appears to be least reconciled to a special membership status for the United Kingdom and especially the notion (enshrining what is already a reality) that the EU is a permanent multi-currency union with differential membership obligations. 

If David Cameron does succeed in all four areas the European Council can be rated as a success for him and his government. If he can get agreement, hostilities will then shift to Britain for a full-blown clash over the UK’s European future as the formal referendum campaign begins.

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