It would surely have been a cracker of a speech. He was all set to stroll onto the stage, wryly cite some of the more excitable commentary about his visit, and then carefully explain why, in his view, the closer integration of the eurozone makes it necessary for the EU to create a new relationship with Britain.
He would have done so, of course, by reference to an integrative vision, one that took into account the mutual binds of a deep relationship between 27 governments, and showed how the UK and the other member states would develop together despite this new settlement. There would be no threats, narrow national thinking or blackmail.
After all, the Prime Minister is aware that the European Union creates dynamic, multilateral relations between its 27 members. A legalistic new British membership settlement and a ‘unilateral’ national referendum are meaningless unless all members actively pursue the spirit of that agreement.
In a cruel trick of fate, however, the affair will be remembered only for the prime minister’s clever efforts to lower expectations ahead of his visit – that, and some leaked passages from the speech which gave the impression he was actually intending to give one of those “reform yourselves or we’re leaving” lectures
In short, the past few days have been most unfair on David Cameron. Rather than hear his compelling vision for the future of the EU, the rest of the bloc has been left with the bitter aftertaste of what it perceives as yet another example of British leadership-without-listening.
Worst of all, the released passages of the speech will have reminded other governments of the two strands of the British EU debate that they find particularly irritating, the first being the mantra that ‘other EU governments would be mad to let Britain leave the Union’.
When talking about the UK’s scope to renegotiate its membership settlement, British politicians argue that the government should not express any desire to remain in the EU. It should instead make clear that it is prepared to leave the bloc if refused proper reforms and concessions, and the EU will thus be losing an international powerhouse. The second strand paints the EU as a collusive club of continental governments out to punish the United Kingdom instead of undertaking difficult reforms.
Just look at the French, runs the refrain. They goaded Cameron into exercising his ‘veto’ in December 2011, and then set up a separate political architecture for dealing with eurozone affairs without London. Now they are colluding with flabby southern states on financial transfers. The UK is paying for their refusal to reform.
All this, of course, is old hat. What is interesting today, however, is that it may prove perversely self-fulfilling: if the UK continues to take the ‘you’re lucky to have us’ line, it could first find itself being slyly ejected from the EU and then properly subjected to punitive relations.
After all, if British politicians are mad enough to consider quitting the EU, why do they assume that their continental cousins are not mad enough to eject them? Just such attempts at ‘secession by the centre’ have been identified elsewhere, not least in the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, Russia, Canada, even the UK.
Tired of the constant disintegrative effects of a regional independence movement, a strong political centre eases out a troublesome periphery. The favourite method is to wait for the peripheral territory to hold a referendum on independence, ensuring that it takes the international opprobrium for exit.
Once stuck on the outside, the UK really would take a punishing. The European Union is a club like any other, and it represents its members’ interests. Unfortunately, that also entails shifting the burden for maintaining, say, its agricultural policy or passport-free travel area onto unwitting third countries.
The EU is aware of the problem, but it has just one successful mechanism for dealing with it – enlargement. Third countries, stuck on the outside and subject to the unfortunate by-products of European integration, can apply for enlargement and join the club. This mechanism, however, would clearly not be open to the UK.
An unappetising prospect. It may sound paradoxical, but there are integrative ways of loosening relations with a community. If the government is bent on this course, it needs to identify these methods to secure a smooth transition and a healthy and reformed EU. Will the PM be giving that speech next time round?