Comment: Cameron’s EU dilemmas

By Edward McMillan-Scott MEP

David Cameron's referendum pledge is full of hedged bets. His article in the Sunday Telegraph says: "As we get closer to the end point, we will need to consider how best to get the full-hearted support of the British people whether it is in a general election or in a referendum." He adds:"As I have said, for me the two words 'Europe' and 'referendum' can go together… but let us get the people a choice first." So it is the latter point that is more significant. In other words, Cameron wants a renegotiation of our commitment to EU social, home affairs and employment policies.

To make such a promise at this stage can rightly be seen as anticipating Liam Fox's bid for leadership of the Conservative right – there are several more credible candidates – but it is also an appeal to Ukip, whose attitude to the EU he once described as "headbanging".

The likelihood of success in achieving anything more than marginal detachment from policies central to the EU – beyond the series of opt-outs the UK already has – is a huge risk. But the formal pledge is significant because, for the first time, it harks back to Labour's "renegotiation" which gave rise to the 1975 referendum.

For today's Labour leadership, which has yet to come to a view on its approach to the EU (although it is tempted by moderate euroscepticism), the pledge provides another chance for kicking Cameron: it has already begun.

While there is minimal downside for Cameron within the Conservative party at large, for the Liberal Democrats it poses a dilemma. Those who want reform of the EU may find Cameron's approach more appealing than others. As the 2010 manifesto said: "Just because Europe is essential, that doesn't mean the European Union is perfect. We will continue to campaign for improved accountability, efficiency and effectiveness." For others, who see the EU as an economically centrist compromise that needs firm rules to work, the prospect of an evolving EU economic governance is not unattractive.

The silly season is always a febrile time in Westminster, but anti-EU sentiment in all parties has been stoked by the endless euro crisis. In reality, however, it is the eurozone's capitals – especially the incoherence of the Merkel-Sarkozy approach, not to speak of the feebleness of Club Med governments – and not the EU that have caused the problems.

Last Friday morning's eurozone agreement for a form of banking union will probably stabilise things, Brussels hopes until the new Frankfurt-based banking supervisory authority is set up. This will not directly impact on the UK, but many in the City are apprehensive about its primacy in financial markets as time goes on. More serious is the risk of a two-tier system of financial regulation within the single market. So far, newly-adopted fiscal oversight mechanisms such as the 'six-pack' apply to all 27 member states, although the Czech Republic and the UK did not sign up to the binding convergence in the accompanying fiscal compact.

Whether Cameron can keep the coalition together on Europe is doubtful. If so, how he proposes to negotiate unilaterally as leader of the Conservative party with the other 26 EU countries needs to be explained. His own ability to win friends and influence people was demolished years ago, when he withdrew from the mainstream European Peoples' party. His solitary alliance with the Czech premier Petr Necas is not propitious.

Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire & Humber, Liberal Democrat), a vice-president of the European Parliament, was leader of the Conservative MEPs 1997 – 2001. He protested at David Cameron's formation of a new group in the European Parliament and joined the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

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