For a Prime Minister seen to have no real interest or clout in Europe, David Cameron is doing pretty well – and far better than this morning’s newspapers suggest. He has built around him an alliance of reformers, which I describe in my Spectator cover piece today (and discuss in this week’s podcast). It is what Cameron calls a ‘Northern Alliance’: the Scandinavian states, plus the Dutch and Germans. His friend and conservative leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, is all up for reform. Not a majority, by any means, but what they want – simplification of the EU and more powers for national parliaments – isn’t opposed. Last week Cameron met the European with good claim to be a thought leader on EU reform: Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister. He has a list of reforms, which he thinks can be implemented without Treaty change. And that the French won’t oppose it if it’s described as ‘simplification’ – they only care about the farm subsidies. Germany wants to keep Britain on board, so Merkel will acquiesce – she cares about keeping the show on the road. The Dutch plan, which could double as a British plan, is radical and doable.
And this is the problem. All this has come too early: Cameron doesn’t need a Northern Alliance now. He needs one just before his 2017 referendum, and ideally reform with a British rather than Dutch flag on it. This is why he’s not really talking policy this week with Merkel, or last week with Rutte. He’s building an alliance, in preparation for when he needs one.
And by 2017, how many members of his Northern Alliance will still be there? The Swedish conservatives look set to lose the general election in September, Mark Rutte leads a volatile Dutch coalition and will be lucky to survive three years. Norway will still be in Conservative hands, but it’s not an EU member. Cameron’s re-election is, to put it mildly, not guaranteed. The one person who can be guaranteed to be there is Mrs Merkel – whose overriding concern is to keep the EU together.
The stars have aligned right now for Cameron’s ‘Northern Alliance,’ which is no small diplomatic feat. If his new friends are there for a summer 2017 deal, all of this quiet diplomacy will have paid off. But, as he knows, it’s a very big ‘if’.