THE BLOG

Getting Stuff Done in Brussels

21/01/2016 11:19 GMT | Updated 20/01/2017 10:12 GMT

In almost exactly a month's time David Cameron will meet the press in Brussels to announce the outcome of the European Council meeting. The media room in the Justus Lipsius building will be packed, if all the signs are to be believed we can expect an announcement on renegotiation.

What a difference a few months can make, cast your mind back to 2015 and pundits claimed that everything from a German boycott to a lack of clout in Brussels would cast British hopes against the rocks. Cameron's subsequent visits to Brussels have appeared far from bruising, he's looked assured on the international stage and has reportedly secured buy-in from the upper echelons of the EU's bureaucracy.

The Prime Minister effectively supercharged the negotiation process after talks were accused of "stalling" last September. It's a good example of how political big hitters can expedite and encourage the policy making process, dramatically altering the terms of a debate and finding potentially new solutions to problems deemed to be insurmountable. Research by the Institute for Government (IfG) describes the considerable value political clout provides to the act of simply getting stuff done.

While the entire process has been lubricated by months of talks between a dozen eurocrats and Whitehall mandarins, two factors have aided the Prime Minister's negotiation.

Firstly, his letter to Martin Schultz at the beginning of November was a good example of political expediency. The Commons European Scrutiny Committee bemoaned its lack of specific requests or demands, or explanation of the structures used to achieve its desired change. In fact, this represents the letter's biggest strength. Number 10 understands that the UK needs a completely unique arrangement to achieve change, different to that given to the Irish or Danes.

Secondly, he's used the influence of the European Council to full effect. While details have been kept under wraps, it's apparent that the whole narrative around renegotiation changed dramatically after December's meeting. The Council itself has no formal legislative powers, but provides crucial political direction to the other institutions in Brussels. The Prime Minister hasn't knocked on the doors of other European leaders at these summits, he's kicked them open with full force.

If Cameron is successful in a few weeks' time there's likely to be a small spike in approval for the Tories back home. Renegotiation is popular, the polls suggest that more people would choose to stay in the EU if the Prime Minister returns triumphant. This represents a serious threat for those leading the campaign for Britain to head towards the exit, as does the ongoing disorder within their ranks.

But there's also a potential pitfall lying in wait for Number 10, which the leave campaign will attempt to tie into a neat little narrative.

It's becoming quickly clear that the solution is likely to be elaborate, the four areas targeted for reform will be tackled individually with a range of tactics. The Commons' European Scrutiny Committee has outlined what these might be, from potentially simple reforms in areas of immigration to wholesale treaty change to tackle the UK's relationship with the Eurozone.

Potential modification to the EU's treaties is the elephant in the room for those fleshing out an agreement. Experts from a range of disciplines widely agree that for some of the key demands this is pretty much essential. Senior members of the Government, including the Home Secretary, have said as much.

Simply put, because there's no opportunity to secure treaty change amongst all 28 members of the union before the referendum it's likely the European Council will agree to some form of international agreement to amend the treaties at a future opportunity.

As we head towards the referendum the leave campaign will want to paint the Prime Minister's promise as wafer thin and unstable. They might claim it's a far cry from the "irreversible" and "legally binding" guarantees he sought from the very start. The Lisbon Treaty, eight years in the making, could be dangled in front of voters as a reminder of EU sluggishness.

In short, they'll try and challenge the British people's satisfaction with a proposed settlement that they appear happy to accept. Overcoming that, and keeping his senior team on message, will be the next hurdle for the Prime Minister.

Also posted on MHP Communications' website here.