Tory MPs may have agreed not to panic in the light of Ukip’s big win, but that doesn’t mean David Cameron isn’t going to come under a huge amount of pressure from them in the coming days and weeks to do something, anything, to show he’s got the message. One of their demands is bound to be that the Prime Minister not only bring forward the date of any referendum – but also spell out in more detail exactly what it is he wants out of his renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
In fact, of course, the kind of EU which Cameron – indeed, all Tory moderates and pragmatists – would feel reasonably content to belong to should be no mystery to anyone by now. After all, he himself set it out in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013. He still wants what he said he wanted back then, namely a 21st Century EU that is “a means to an end – prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores – not an end in itself.”
In other words, it’s an EU which stresses internal and external competition, which acknowledges diversity and operates rules and structures that don’t discriminate against those member states not signed up to full-blown currency, banking, and fiscal union. It makes sure that things better done domestically are not being done by Brussels and, if they are, makes moves to put things right.
So far, so easy. But what is more difficult for Conservatives like Cameron who remain broadly in favour of continued membership is what the UK should do if this isn’t the kind of European Union that the other 27 member states actually want or at least feel can be achieved.
For the moment, if he has done nothing else, Cameron has postponed any immediate need to come up with an answer to this awkward question. He has also, with a little help from Angela Merkel, been able to give the impression that the UK, in its bid to renegotiate its relationship and repatriate powers, is not without friends and allies.
But anyone who can resist the lure of wishful thinking or is halfway familiar with the countries in question – Germany, the Nordics, some of the post-communist member states – knows that, forced to choose, they will choose Europe over helping out their new best friend. Unlike the UK, or at least unlike the Conservative Party, they see no going back even if they would like to see some serious changes made.
That is not to say, however, that they will not give a little. The Conservatives’, the country’s and indeed the continent’s best hope is surely some sort of deal done on the basis of devolving powers that a decent majority of member states agree need devolving.
The problem will come if Cameron concludes that the only deal worth having (or at least worth trying to sell back home) is based on Britain getting something that most other member states don’t get. Not unreasonably, they will see special treatment of that kind as freeriding and therefore won’t agree. The same goes for a deal which involves unpicking budgets or serious reform of the CAP. There are simply too many payees – and, whatever the UK thinks, not enough seriously angry payers – to see that happen.
Sensible Conservatives – the kind who still believe they should be Britain’s natural party of government rather than some sort of revolutionary vanguard – know in their hearts what the party and the Prime Minister should do. Starting with the vision of the EU he laid out in his Bloomberg speech, he should figure out what other member states will put up with and then work backwards from there, selling whatever that may be as just what he wanted in the first place and exactly what the country really needs.
That will entail some seriously skilful behind-the-scenes (as opposed to megaphone) diplomacy and, although nobody is talking about a full-blown reconciliation, trying to rebuild some of the bridges that were burned by leaving the EPP group in the European Parliament. The very least the Tories can do on this score is not to allow their desperation to expand (or even simply ensure the survival) their own ECR group to tempt them into offering membership to the populist rivals of the mainstream centre-Right parties whose support Cameron will need for any reform programme worth the name. Most importantly, if the Prime Minister wants to keep Angela Merkel onside anyway, they mustn’t touch the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with a bargepole.
None of this is pure. Nor is it pretty. But it is politics, at least as practised in an increasingly interdependent continent – and in the real world, too. Those Conservatives who prefer the fantasy version need to grow up and get serious. Cameron’s problem, and therefore Europe’s problem, however, is what his party needs to do and what it actually does are too often two very different things.