Exclusive: Cameron’s empty threat to the EU - PM is losing the argument because even his allies in Europe do not believe him
Diplomats warn that Britain cannot expect future concessions
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Monday 30 June 2014
European countries have warned David Cameron that his threats about the British people voting to leave an unreformed EU may backfire, undermining the Prime Minister’s hopes of winning major concessions.
Diplomats from countries sympathetic to Britain have told the Foreign Office there will be a limit to sweeteners the Prime Minister can win before putting his new deal to voters in a referendum promised for 2017.
The warnings emerged after the Prime Minister failed to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission. Mr Cameron believes Mr Juncker will stand in the way of reform.
A senior official from a pro-British EU nation told The Independent: “The threat to leave may prove an empty one. It is not the best way to get what you want. Cameron may find that other people will call his bluff.”
Another EU diplomat said: “The view around Europe is that Britain will come to its senses and would not be stupid enough to leave. That means the rest of us will only go so far to help Britain.”
A Brussels insider also said people were “sick of Britain’s complaining tone” and would only help to avoid its exit if ministers made a “positive case” for EU membership.
Mr Cameron, who is due to make a Commons statement on Monday on the turbulent EU summit, held talks by telephone with Mr Juncker on Sunday in a first move to forge a working relationship with him.
Labour launched a scathing attack on Mr Cameron’s approach to the negotiations. Writing on The Independent website, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, said Britain had less chance of achieving reform to the EU following the Prime Minister’s “personal defeat and diplomatic humiliation”.
The Government claims Mr Cameron’s unyielding stance against Mr Juncker’s appointment will strengthen his hand when he negotiates new EU membership terms by 2017.
Read more: Jean-Claude Juncker profile
Leaders of Germany and Sweden made conciliatory noises towards Britain after Mr Cameron was outvoted by 26-2 at an EU summit on Friday which nominated Mr Juncker. But the diplomats’ views suggest the Prime Minister’s hardline tactics may rebound on him.
After his humiliating defeat, Mr Cameron admitted the task of persuading the public to stay in the EU had become “harder” but insisted it was not “impossible”.
He said he still intended to recommend an “in” vote in the referendum, because that would be in Britain’s national interest, but he is under pressure from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs to say he is prepared to urge an “out” vote.
Charles Walker, a vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, claimed on Sunday that more than half of the 305 Tory MPs would back leaving the EU.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Cameron and Mr Juncker discussed “how they would work together to make the EU more competitive and more flexible”. He said: “The PM welcomed Mr Juncker’s commitment to finding a fair deal for Britain and Mr Juncker said that he was committed to finding solutions for the political concerns of the UK.”
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, hinted at a change of tone on Sunday as he refused to be drawn on whether leaving the EU would be a disaster.
He told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “This will be the debate in the referendum. I have always argued against more power going to the EU but for us to be a member of Europe but not run by Europe.”
But Mr Alexander said: “[Mr Cameron’s] defeat last week exposes the fact that he has developed the wrong strategy and deployed the wrong tactics. His approach is driven by a mistaken belief that threatening exit, and committing to an arbitrary timetable for a referendum in 2017, maximises your influence, when the evidence demonstrates it has done the opposite.”
EU sources have played down the significance of concessions in the Brussels summit conclusions won by Mr Cameron. The 28 leaders accepted that the UK’s concerns “will need to be addressed” and agreed that the EU’s drive for “ever closer union” will not apply to all member states.
Officials said the statement did not amount to “bankable” promises for renegotiation.
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