The Sunday Papers and the broadcast shows are packed with accounts of Britain’s fractious relationship with the European Union, and what that means for David Cameron. The Observer gives space to a poll, the headline of which says that 56 per cent of Britons would ‘probably or definitely’ vote to leave the EU against 30 per cent who would probably or definitely vote to remain in the union. The Independent on Sunday carries a ComRes poll on the more immediate question of next week’s EU budget discussions. The findings will give Mr Cameron a headache: 66 per cent of voters want the budget ‘cut rather than frozen’. The voters will be disappointed: a cut is a fantasy. Even a freeze is looking unlikely because recipient countries are likely to oppose it. Indeed, those countries are sufficiently numerous to deliver an EU budget increase, which David Cameron must surely veto if he is to see off his hostile backbenchers.
Yet there is a further complication. If the EU reaches no agreement next week, the existing spending limit will roll over – having, of course, been adjusted for inflation. As John Rentoul points out this morning, the spending limit is higher than actual spending. So, perverse though it might seem, EU spending would increase if Cameron were to use his veto. I can’t imagine that Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage will let him get away with that eventuality.
One can see why the government has taken a stance against Brussels’ financial excesses: it chimes with the spirit of the age and using the veto last year gave Cameron a bounce in some polls. But, as Christopher Caldwell’s cover piece argues, it has isolated Britain and exasperated Angela Merkel. Relations between Britain and Germany look set to deteriorate further. That should be more of a worry for Cameron than it is for Merkel: as Fraser argued in a magazine piece this week, she realises that the coalition is too conflicted and weak for Cameron to take Britain to the European exit.
Instinct says that Cameron has missed an opportunity: he might have seen what he could extract from Brussels in exchange for his limited support on the budget and forthcoming reforms relating to the Eurozone. David Davis seemed to be driving at this on the Andrew Marr Show earlier. ‘This is a historic opportunity, we should take it,’ he said. Beyond that observation, Davis, a former Europe Minister, wants to put a 2-part referendum to the British people. He wants to offer a ‘menu’ promising a ‘radically different’ relationship with the EU for which the people would vote to provide a mandate for the government to pursue. The second part of the referendum would be a straight in/out question on the basis that the ‘menu’ wasn’t served. He added that this was not a ‘frightening’ prospect.
Labour, of course, cannot ignore this developing question. Ed Miliband has given an interview to the Sunday Telegraph’s Patrick Hennessy and Matthew d’Ancona in which he says that Eurosceptic arguments should not be dismissed because some of them are correct. He calls for a new relationship with Europe to reform budgets, immigration policy, the single market and government intervention in the economy. This is brave from the Labour leader: there are some Labour MPs who are avowedly Europhilic and Miliband runs the risk of alienating them if opportunistic opposition becomes principled policy. Miliband’s interview, though, looks more like an exercise in positioning rather than marking a dramatic change in policy.