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Friday, 26 June 2015

Cameron in Europe: not a good place to be

As that wily old fox Harold Macmillan once said, the most difficult thing about being prime minister is: "Events, dear boy, events."

Which is why, at last night's EU summit dinner in Brussels, David Cameron's long-awaited presentation on the UK's renegotiation demands was reduced to the status of a TV bulletin's "… and finally" item.

Yesterday morning, hours before the summit actually took place, The Times reported the laconic text of the draft conclusions: "The UK prime minister set out his plans for an (in/out) referendum in the UK. The European Council agreed to revert to the matter in December."  Enuff said.

Events, indeed. Timing matters in politics, as does luck -- and Mr Cameron is already in trouble on both fronts. A Wall Street Journal correspondent summed it up with admirable brevity: the three items on the summit agenda were (i) the people who want to get in (migrants); (ii) the people who want to stay in (the Greeks); and (iii) the people who might want to get out (the Brits).

This is, to say the least, somewhat unfortunate. A lot of what Mr Cameron is trying to do is regarded sympathetically, even enthusiastically, in some other EU capitals. If the waters were calmer, and if the eurozone picture were clearer, many of his fellow leaders would be more than happy to hear what he has to say and discuss his ideas seriously.

But with tens of thousands of migrants desperate to flee from war, oppression and poverty, and with Greece threatening to crash out of the eurozone with who-knows-what consequences, well, sorry, but it's events, dear boy, events.

Let's be honest: the EU is not good in a crisis. Hardly surprising, with 28 governments of vastly different political complexions, all trying to reconcile domestic constraints with their EU responsibilities. Not good in one crisis, much worse in two, absurdly inadequate when facing three.

(Did I hear someone mention Ukraine? No, I thought not. Three crises are more than enough.)

Like any large institution, the EU is a lumbering beast that reacts slowly to external events. And when I say slowly, I mean V-E-R-Y slowly. The migration crisis has been building ever since the overthrow of Libya's President Gaddafi in 2011. The Greek debt crisis didn't exactly explode the day before yesterday out of a clear blue sky. And as for Mr Cameron's referendum, that's been on the agenda for well over two years.

Bureaucrats (yes, and politicians) are rather too fond of dealing with crises by seeking refuge in euphemisms. They do a lot of metaphorical kicking -- of cans down the road, and of balls into the long grass. They hope -- to pluck another tired old cliché out of the ether -- that by the time the chickens come home to roost, they'll be long gone.

But here's the thing: the chickens have come home. Mr Cameron has that referendum pledge hanging round his neck; President Hollande of France has an election looming in 2017, as does Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Each of them knows that their political fate depends in large part on what they do about those wretched chickens, including, most urgently, the IMF's insistence that Greece must pay up the next debt repayment that's due next week .

Unlike his colleagues in Paris and Berlin, Mr Cameron is unambiguously the author of his own misfortune. Promising an in-out referendum was a way of keeping the Tory EU-phobes quiet and, he hoped, blunting the UKIP surge. He didn't have to make the promise, but he chose to.

The likelihood is -- all other things being equal (but see "events, dear boy" above) -- that British voters will decide to say Yes to continued EU membership. But that is not the answer that UKIP and others who have made such a fetish of a referendum are hoping for -- and it will leave them a great deal less than gruntled.

I am one of those people who think that the EU is a good thing, and that Britain's place is in it. I also think, and have always thought, that the single currency is a bad thing. But we are where we are -- and eurozone leaders have displayed a steely determination to make sure it survives, no matter what the cost to the people of Greece, Spain and Portugal.

For a journalist, covering the EU has always been one of the toughest gigs around. Brussels? Oh. So. Boring. But not any more. The coming months will see the EU front and centre of the political debate not just in the UK but in many other member states as well.

And the stakes are high. In the words of Philip Stephens of the Financial Times: "If Britain leaves Europe, Scotland will leave Britain. The union of the United Kingdom would not long survive Brexit." That's quite a price to pay for what may well end up as a failed attempt to stop the Tory party falling apart.

Exactly three years ago, I quoted the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: "No one can predict what convulsions the eurozone crisis will cause. But its political ramifications are likely to prove both massive and fundamental."

Don't say you weren't warned.

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