In the 18th century, young men of David Cameron’s background used to round off an extensive and expensive education with a “Grand Tour” of Europe. They would take in the Continent’s cultural centres and archaeological sites and return to England with broader horizons.
The Prime Minister’s modern version takes a classic route starting with the Low Countries and Paris before moving farther afield. He has already met the Dutch Prime Minister, a political soulmate and leader of a nation traditionally sympathetic to the British viewpoint. In Paris, though, his education would have been more challenging, with President Hollande tutoring him in the European dream, and painting an Elysian picture of the EU’s destiny. Warsaw does not seem to have been that much easier a mission. The Polish Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz, will need some reassurance her people are not to be treated as second-class Europeans when they come to Britain – to work, not scrounge.
Mr Cameron’s last stop was the most important: Berlin. As paymaster of the EU, it is Germany rather than France that has assumed the de facto political and economic leadership of the Union, and Angela Merkel has emerged as Europe’s senior figure. Fortunately for the prospects of a British deal, she and her civil servants have been assessing the UK’s needs. And, while she will never concede on the principle of free movement of people, there is much else she can offer the Prime Minister to save his face and keep the European show on the road.
Like the aristocratic dilettantes wandering around Roman ruins three centuries ago, Mr Cameron’s tour is more for his own edification. All the governments know more or less what they will settle for and where the compromises lie. Whatever he gets, Mr Cameron will call it “historic”, declare victory and recommend a Yes vote in the referendum. Still, we hope he will have enjoyed the sights.