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Cameron’s calculated risk

Cameron’s calculated risk

PM is singing Merkel’s song
Not reckless but reasonable

by David Marsh

Thu 24 Jan 2013

David Cameron is said to understand public relations. This was his sole job outside politics before he entered parliament. The British Foreign office is said to be the Rolls-Royce of world diplomacy. We know this because they keep telling us so. For once, in yesterday’s speech on Europe, the two elements came together.
The British prime minister's address was, on the whole, well-crafted and sensible. The proposal to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union in four or five years is a calculated risk. But it’s also a well-judged mixture of provocation, persuasiveness and pragmatism towards Britain's EU partners and its friends, allies and competitors further afield.
To put forward a plan to make Europe more attuned to the needs of today’s ultra-competitive world and more in line with the wishes of its citizens is not anti-European. It’s precisely the opposite. To propose that the British people vote on the results of this endeavour is hardly reckless. It is democratic. The last referendum on the matter was in 1975. Holding plebiscites every 42 years is not rampant populism. To announce now that Britain will enter into talks with its partners on the process for organising this state of affairs is hardly ruthless. It is the height of reasonableness.
I am not generally a Cameron supporter. In the past, the man seemed to me to carry a hint of a robot programmed with the character of a shampoo salesman. But yesterday he came of age. Parts of the speech could have been written by a German. Perhaps they were. The five key themes – competitiveness, flexibility, subsidiarity, democratic accountability, fairness – are all issues heavily promoted by Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent months. No wonder she was less dismissive than many other so-called European leaders yesterday. Cameron is singing her song.

It’s infantile for people like Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, to accuse the British of ‘cherry-picking’. Anyone who bothered to read (rather than ’cherry-pick’) Cameron’s speech can see it’s an attempt to overhaul the essence of the EU’s machinery to take account of some members’ need to proceed further with political and economic integration to make monetary union work. This process must respect the wishes of other members such as the UK who do not want to go down this route, but require the essence of the EU – the single market – to be kept intact. What Cameron has proclaimed is not cherry-picking, but a German-style Gesamtkonzept to reconfigure the orchard. A thoroughgoing, painstaking process that Berlin should (and probably eventually will) welcome.
It’s even more absurd for Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, to say the British are like people who join a football team and decide to play rugby. And this from the man who split his Socialist party in 2005 by leading, on the grounds of democratic legitimacy, the (eventually triumphant) ‘no’ campaign against the proposed European Union constitutional treaty!

Cameron wants to play football. He is leading a supporters’ revolt because he believes the present managers are incompetent, the club is running out of money, the star players are defecting and the team is in danger of being relegated to the Second Division. It’s not the game that Cameron wishes to change, but the strategy and tactics.

Not very often does a British prime minister find words that neutralise his domestic opponents and contribute constructively to the shaping of policy abroad. Cameron did that yesterday. For that, he and his speechwriters deserve praise. Let’s see whether the Rolls-Royce can do the rest…

This is the first of two OMFIF commentaries on the British prime minister’s speech on Europe.

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