The Blog

Why Cameron Will Say All the Wrong Things on the EU

Instead of talking about a two-speed Europe, or a multi-tier Europe, or an "associate membership" Europe, why don't we imagine a Europe of concentric circles?

Sometime before the end of this month, David Cameron will make a Very Important Speech about Britain and the EU. I know that, like me, you are already on the edge of your seat, quivering in excited anticipation.

Unfortunately, Mr Cameron will almost certainly say all the wrong things. He will talk about Britain insisting on this, demanding that, and refusing to accept the other. He will sound, as so many British politicians have done before him, like a petulant child, stamping his foot because he can't have what he wants.

There is another way. He could - here's a revolutionary idea for you - be honest. He could say there are pluses and minuses to being a member of the EU, and then spell them out for us. Maybe take out full-page ads in the papers, asking Monty Python style: "What has the EU ever done for us?" - and then provide a list of answers.

And here's another idea: instead of talking about a two-speed Europe, or a multi-tier Europe, or an "associate membership" Europe, why don't we imagine a Europe of concentric circles?

At its centre would be the members of the eurozone, with all its trimmings: banking union, common taxation policies, and of course the single currency. Next, the countries that are in the single market, but outside the eurozone, in other words, where the UK, Sweden and Denmark are now. Other governments may choose to be there too.

Then, a third circle, outside the single market but still in the EU. Maybe that's where some of Mr Cameron's Tory colleagues would prefer to be, pretty much where we were before the UK signed up to the single market in 1987 (the prime minister at the time, you may recall, was a certain Margaret Thatcher).

And you could have a fourth circle, in which you'd find countries like Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, not in the EU but linked to it. Some Tory MPs want that to be the place for the UK as well.

But here's the really revolutionary idea: when you've drawn up all your different circles (and yes, I know it'll be complicated and difficult, but there are some very clever people in Brussels), you put them to the vote. Not just in the UK, but right across the EU. Ask the voters in all 27 member states, on the same day, which circle they'd like to be in.

It's never been done before, and it would change the nature of the EU overnight. For the first time in its recent history, the shape of the EU would genuinely represent the will of the people who live in it, rather than the conviction of Europe's political elites that they know best.

I remember being shocked (yes, I'm still just about capable of being shocked) at a meeting in Westminster some months ago when a group of MPs and peers were discussing the future shape of the EU. I ventured to suggest that closer integration might not be acceptable to British voters. "Probably," said one of the participants. "But the voters would be wrong."

In an article in the Financial Times last October, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform wrote of a multi-tier Europe rather than a concentric one, and said: "Life in the third tier need not be uncomfortable for the UK. If it makes an effort to win friends and allies among its partners, including those in the euro, it will have an influential voice in EU decision-making. Yet successive British governments have done too little to forge alliances with those - such as the central Europeans, Nordics and Dutch - who tend to think like the British on some key issues."

So how about it, prime minister? Tell us you're going to propose to the UK's EU partners that a new constitutional commission is established to draw up the criteria for a concentric union. The members of the commission will be given two years to come up with a detailed plan, then there'll be a three-month referendum campaign in each of the EU's 27 member states.

A lively, raucous debate will ensue. Different political parties will choose different options - they'll take out newspaper ads, stage televised debates, form cross-border alliances, argue that this is the most important political decision voters will be asked to make in a generation. The campaign will be noisy, messy and ill-tempered.

We could even call it - and I admit I may be stretching a point here - democracy in action.