THE BLOG

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's EU Renegotiation: Tortoise or Hare?

16/10/2015 10:37 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 10:12 BST

In January 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered his now infamous Bloomberg speech, promising to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU. Following renegotiation, he said he would present the British public with the "simple choice" of staying in or choosing to leave, based on the terms secured by the end of 2017.

This relied, of course, on his party securing a majority in 2015's General Election. Many in both Brussels and London thought this eventuality wouldn't come to pass - who predicted a Conservative majority in May (other than a lucky gambler or two)? As a result, little ground work was laid prior to Cameron's electoral success.

Shortly after victory, however, there was a flurry of activity. Cameron went to meet EU leaders, Chancellor George Osborne was appointed lead negotiator and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond raised the issue with his European counterparts. The renegotiation was on; swift progress was expected. Rumours were floating that the UK could hold its referendum in June 2016 and a package of reforms was to be announced at the EU Council Summit in December 2015.

Recently, it has become clear that the renegotiation has slowed. Osborne is said to be keener on a tortoise-like approach - slow and steady gets a better deal. The issue is that there is uncertainty as to what exactly the UK wants. European Commission officials are looking through speeches by Cameron and Osborne to get an idea. While they await detailed proposals on paper, they may begin to expect less than originally anticipated. The demands once set out in statements and speeches appear to be dwindling in number.

Cameron was at first pushing for reforms on competitiveness, a 'red card' system for EU legislation, wide ranging reforms to benefit claims by EU migrants, turbo-charging EU trade deals, an opt-out of "ever closer union" (in the EU Treaties) and safeguards for non-eurozone countries, among others.

We are hearing less and less on some of these demands. In his Conference speech, Cameron said "Britain is not interested in "ever closer union"- and I will put that right". Osborne had said two days prior that "we don't want to be part of the single currency and as far as I'm concerned, Britain never will be" and "Let's fight for that". Both may be admirable goals but there is nothing to fight for. The UK has an opt-out on joining the euro - we have the pound and we will keep the pound - and that opt-out is, in effect, an opt-out on "ever closer union". So nothing to be achieved there.

If the terms of Britain's renegotiation are not good enough, Cameron has said he will "not rule anything out" when it comes to campaigning for or against membership. But wouldn't it be difficult for him to disown the deal - would that not be an admission of failure?

So what do voters want from the renegotiation? After all, they will decide on whether it is good enough.

A recent ComRes poll found the issue voters felt was most important was restricting the benefits that EU migrants entering the UK can receive, with 82% saying it was important, and 55% of those saying it was very important. The second most important issue was limits on the number of people moving to the UK from the EU, with 54% saying it was very important and 24% saying it was fairly important. There is scope for progress on the first of those - Germany is said to support elements of this, though reforms could be less significant than previously announced. However, restricting the number of EU migrants to the UK is an impossible goal. The UK Government can't hope to convince other Member States that an underlying principle of the EU should be curbed.

A desire for treaty change is unlikely to be met pre-2017, though there is scope for change after - it just can't be guaranteed. At least reduced business regulation (considered important, but less so) is a realistic goal. Commission First-Vice President Frans Timmermans' 'Better Regulation' initiative will go some way towards achieving this, though the UK's threat of referendum didn't necessarily secure this change.

There are some positives. Officials from the UK and EU are meeting regularly, discussing the technical aspects of the negotiations and looking at where treaty or legal changes are possible. EU Commissioner Jean Claude-Juncker has expressed his flexibility in order to keep the UK in the EU.

Today we hear Cameron is looking to build momentum in the renegotiation ahead of the December EU Council Summit, despite an ongoing focus on the refugee crisis. Interested observers will have to be patient. As Philip Hammond has himself said, a quick deal is not on the cards. That may be a good thing - the tortoise beat the hare after all.