David Cameron is visiting British troops in Afghanistan today, but before he left London, he gave an end-of-term interview to the Daily Telegraph. Much the most significant item in it is his statement that — while he wants to negotiate the repatriation of some powers from Brussels to London — he would never support a British withdrawal from the European Union or campaign for it in a referendum campaign. Almost every informed person had already guessed that. But as every commentator immediately pointed out, this clear public statement of his position has just destroyed his negotiating policy.
After all, if the other Europeans, notably Germany and France, were to reject Britain’s demands in the talks, Cameron would be left with no alternative but to return to London saying, “Sorry, chaps, they just won’t wear it. We’ll have to continue living within a system that I described as clearly harmful to Britain in the recent election.”
Some Cameron supporters have suggested that he could retrieve some of the damage by saying something to the EU on the following lines: “Well, I would never countenance withdrawal, but I can tell you that the British people will replace me with a much tougher customer unless you give us better terms.” The problem with that is that Cameron (a) is a devout believer in the EU and doesn’t want to cast any real doubt on U.K. membership and (b) is a devout believer in his own premiership and doesn’t want to cast any doubt on that either.
Interestingly, Cameron’s argument as to why a British departure from the EU would be a Bad Thing in all circumstances doesn’t begin to make sense. He says: “When I look at what is in our national interest, we are not some country that looks in on ourself or retreats from the world. Britain’s interest — trading a vast share of our GDP — is to be in those markets. Not just buying, selling, investing, receiving investment but also helping to write the rules. If we were outside, we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Of course, being inside the EU doesn’t mean helping to write the rules of international trade and capital movements. It means having some influence on the negotiating position of the EU in global trade talks. That’s fine if the balance of opinion in the EU is largely favorable to Britain. Increasingly — as the discussions on the proposed Tobin tax on international capital trading show — it’s largely hostile to Britain, to Britain’s traditional liberal trading policy, and thus to British interests. But Britain is committed to the EU common trade-negotiating position once the decision is reached.
Outside the EU, however, Britain could determine its own trade-negotiating position and side with the trade bloc to which it felt closest on that occasion — the U.S. and NAFTA, or the Cairns Group, or a Commonwealth group, or whatever. And because it was not committed in advance to support the negotiating position of any group, it would have greater leverage in the negotiations with all groups.
But we have already established that negotiating is not Cameron’s forte.
By an amusing coincidence, figures out today show that, for the first time since 1970, Britain’s trade with the rest of the world has just outdistanced its trade with Europe. Given that the euro zone is collapsing, however, relations with it come under the heading not of trade but of necrophilia.