The prime minister tried to use his treaty veto to avoid a referendum, but instead has ended up in no man’s land
Based on Monday’s testimony in the House of Commons and diplomatic sources in Brussels, David Cameron may in fact have used his EU veto to keep Britain in the 27-nation bloc and not taken a step towards leaving the European Union.
If he had signed up to or agreed in any form to a new EU treaty involving the UK, he would have been forced to hold a referendum on EU membership. A referendum that he and his coalition partners have been doing everything they can to avoid because it would have split both the Conservative Party and the pact with the Liberal Democrats. But worse than that.
This was a referendum which — as opinion polls suggest — would have ended in a vote against EU membership and thus put Cameron and Clegg both on the wrong side of the result. Cameron has said that if there was a referendum, he would support staying in the EU. However, saying one thing and actually having to do it are two very different things.
Therefore, once Germany and France refused to bow to his demands for a protocol to defend UK interests, he was faced with a no-win situation. So he went for the lowest common denominator and that was to at least remain within the current treaties and on the face of it, the European Union.
But what he should have done in my view, was to take a “wait and see” approach similar to Sweden and the Czech Republic and buy himself time. There was nothing explicit on the table, just the principle idea of a new treaty. How that treaty will look in the spring is still very much up for grabs and the UK could have tried to weave their diplomatic wand behind the scenes in Brussels to achieve their objective. Also based on my nearly 10 years in the EU capital, a final treaty could take a very long time to agree anyway. So Cameron had time on his side.
So why did he jump in with both feet and use the veto ? At 5am confronted by the unmoveable Merkozy, whom he had misjudged or misread, he lost patience and took the political decision to on the one hand stay in the EU and on the other hand paint himself as the Conservative party’s British Bulldog defending UK interests. In fact all he has managed to do is leave himself in no man’s land.
Darren Ennis is a director at MHP Communications.
This post first appeared on the Total Politics blog.