LONDON – Unlike some in Britain’s Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron has not previously given the impression of being obsessed with Europe. He demonstrated no enthusiasm for the European Union, but he appeared clearly less exercised by its supposed iniquities than many Tories are.
This view of Cameron’s position is now difficult to sustain. His long-gestating speech on Europe, although containing elements that many might share, also sows the seeds for a prolonged and acrimonious debate – and not just in Britain. Conservatives in the House of Commons (and in the wider party) want to be reassured that their leader shares their antagonism for the entire European integration process. They have not forgotten or pardoned his “treachery” in refusing to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, signed by his predecessor, Gordon Brown. With his speech, that reassurance may now have been given.
Cameron, of course, faced a difficult task with his party, which required a statement from him of his European policy. Cameron then had to find something appropriate to say. He needed to placate Tories and his domestic critics while avoiding the economic and political havoc that would be caused by announcing an imminent referendum that might lead to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. The time that he took to decide what he would say attests to the difficulty of squaring that circle.
In fact, as Cameron’s speech made clear, his solution to his dilemma – to buy himself short-term peace from his critics at the expense of potentially making his (and Britain’s) problems more intractable in the long term – is hardly new. It was already clear that Cameron wanted to push any possibility of a referendum into the most distant possible future. The idea that he would seek to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership is also familiar from his earlier speeches and interviews.