David Cameron is wisely using his first 100 days to tackle the biggest challenge of this parliament head on: the EU referendum. This morning’s papers report that a new referendum bill will be a core part of next week’s Queen’s Speech and Cameron is keen to accelerate the vote to 2016. The logic behind this is sound: by seizing on his fresh democratic mandate, Cameron can hope to convince Brussels he is serious about achieving substantive reforms and his Cabinet now includes those who would definitely consider voting Out (Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid). If they decline to play ball, then it’s goodbye to Blighty.
This strategy all hinges on whether Brussels will listen. The Open Europe think tank isn’t so sure the Prime Minister’s timetable will work, especially not if he speeds it up. In a Telegraph op-ed, Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel says Cameron can achieve substantive reform, but rushing the process will make Cameron’s preferred outcome — staying in with a better relationship — less likely:
‘The risk is that an early referendum – without a full reform process – fails to settle the issue, leading to greater uncertainty in the medium term. In the end, the best way to get the outcome, which Cameron says he wants and the British public seem to want, is to get the substance and process of reform right. The timing will then take care of itself’
But does Cameron actually want substantial reform? Or does he want to try to keep his party together? One of the joys of majority government is that Cameron now has to implement every single line of his manifesto — including the trickier bits such as scrapping the Human Rights Act. Cameron fully expected that some of the tougher measures would be bartered away in coalition negotiations. But as we said the Spectator leader last week, Cameron has nowhere to hide. If he wants to keep Britain in the EU, then he has to prove it by keeping his party and Brussels happy.
The Prime Minister never expected he would have a democratic mandate to go to Brussels and ask for reforms of this nature so soon. Open Europe has provided a list to the Guardian of four broad areas where he can expect Brussels to listen: restriction on in-work benefits, safeguards against non-eurozone members, the ability for national parliaments to block some legislation and a symbolic change to the EU’s mission of ‘ever closer union’. The question is whether Cameron is patient enough wait for those reforms to transpire. He can either push full steam ahead and hope his party will follow him — or work to the slow rhythm of the Brussels machine. Open Europe clearly think the latter is the right approach, but it appears that the Tory leadership has different ideas.