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Negotiating the shoals of ‘triple-speak’

Negotiating the shoals of ‘triple-speak’

Negotiating the shoals of ‘triple-speak’ 

by Denis MacShane and Jacques Lafitte

Tue 19 May 2015

Britain seems to be toning down its demands from Brussels for a new European relationship as a basis for an EU membership referendum that Prime Minister David Cameron may bring forward to next year from the earlier planned 2017. The problem is ‘triple-speak’. Cameron has to speak to three audiences at once, and make sure his message achieves the desired effect each time – a near-impossible task.

The first audience is middle-of-the-road British opinion (including much of the business community) that isn’t in love with Europe but doesn’t want to leave. To these people, Cameron has to suggest reasonableness, emphasising that he is opposed to ‘Brexit’ and wants to get the referendum out of the way. 

A second set of listeners are eurosceptics in the Conservative party (including many new ministers) and in the anti-EU UK press. Cameron has to tell them he is being tough with Europe and means it.

And to the third audience, the European Commission and other member states, Cameron has to say that a British exit can happen, and will, unless they give him lots of concessions. The danger is that getting all three messages in sequence without blatant contradictions is tricky.

Cameron's four close-to-minimalist demands, we are led to believe, cover excising treaty language describing the EU as ‘an ever-closer union of peoples’, changing rules on social benefits for EU migrant workers, giving more power to national parliaments, and agreeing that the euro area cannot impose rules discriminating against non-euro countries.  

If these reports are right, then agreement with Brussels on the Cameron list could be achieved before the summer holiday. But this would not please the Tory eurospectics. There is nothing here about limiting immigrants, repatriating powers or allowing the House of Commons to veto EU law and policy. This is certain to pose the prime minister considerable domestic challenges.

Things will not be so easy in Brussels either. While Cameron’s spin doctors have been offering in London the vision of a quick and cheerful easy deal, George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, who is charge of the negotiations, got a tongue-lashing in Brussels this week as fellow finance ministers told him to lower expectations.

Michel Sapin, the French finance minister, said Britain was like Greece, insisting on tortuous negotiations that would get nowhere, and ruled out changing the EU treaty. Wolfgang Schäuble, his German counterpart, who has similar views about the possibility of a short-term treaty change, said that Osborne had made ‘unnecessary’ remarks about the euro area to which the UK does not belong.

A closer look at Cameron’s new stance reveals that the four demands aren't that benign. Take, for example, the call for the euro area to take a non-discriminatory line on rules affecting non-members. If, by that, Cameron means that he wants a veto, or even a say, on the (indispensable) strengthening of monetary union and/or a regulatory holiday for the City, he won't get it. He tried this at the European Council of December 2011 during a discussion on banking union. He achieved nothing.

Even Scandinavian counterparties, from whom Cameron expected some support, failed to back him. This was partly because no one from Downing Street thought of giving them a call before the meeting. And the Scandinavians were increasingly tired of the British taking them for granted.

This episode may have been forgotten in London. But that's not the case on the continent.

Britain’s strategy of engaging Berlin in the hope that Chancellor Angela Merkel will somehow manage to silence the remaining 26 member states is very risky. People elsewhere – not just in Paris and Brussels – are frustrated about being taken for a quantité négligeable by arrogant British negotiators. Unless Cameron is very careful, that may get worse. 

For better or for ill, the EU is a system where the institutions matter, as do all member states, large and small. And euro watchers know that, even if Merkel is the dominant force, she does not always get it her way, not even (and especially) when it comes to German taxpayers' money.

Cameron’s toned down demands may be a step in the right direction. But serious complications lie ahead. Negotiating the shoals of ‘triple-speak’ will not be plain sailing.

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. Jacques Lafitte is head of EU consultancy Avisa Partners, and served in the cabinet of the EU Commissioner for economic and monetary affairs.

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