15 January 2013

Double Dutch

Only a few days of excited anticipation remain before the prime minister descends the chimney to deliver his carefully wrapped speech in the Netherlands. It is risky to offer a comment so close to the point when the ribbons come off and we all see what Mr C has for us. All the same, there is one point I think will be worth watching out for.

In all the build up to The Speech, it has been presented as focusing on the relationship between Britain and the EU. If that is its subject matter then I think the prime minister has already fallen into the trap of seeing the UK as external to the EU.

The alternative would be a speech on reforming the EU.  It is not just Britain who might seek a return of powers from Brussels. In the last two decades the French, the Dutch, the Irish (twice) and the Danish have all said no to some part of EU integration. Nor is the issue of a tighter eurozone group a concern only for the UK. Ten of the 27 EU member states (soon 11 of the 28) remain outside and risk losing influence if the inner core starts to dominate policymaking.

Comparisons with  the Bruges speech will be unavoidable. In that speech a previous prime minister set out an alternative vision for Europe, one in which sovereign states cooperated to their mutual benefit. In contrast the spinning of Friday's speech has prepared us for the opening bid in a Dutch auction.

Mr Cameron does not want to lead Britain out of the EU, but if his text really is as limited as we have been led to expect then exit by accident will become ever more possible.

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