Fresh from his election victory, Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has embarked on his tour of EU capitals trying to persuade his counterparts to agree to his ideas for reforming the Union and Britain’s place in it, so he can campaign for a vote to remain a member in the referendum to be held in the next two years.
At the same time, his Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, an overt Eurosceptic, has been telling the UK media that if London does not get what it wants it will vote to leave the EU.
Mr Hammond’s comments reminded me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ western parody “Blazing Saddles” where the sheriff holds himself hostage and threatens to shoot himself to avoid being lynched by the townsfolk. In the movie the trick worked, but Britain’s EU partners won’t be so easily fooled.
The comments also expose the weakness at the heart of the British government’s approach to these negotiations.
In order to get the changes Mr Cameron says he wants involves getting agreement to change some fundamental EU tenets, such as introducing some restriction on freedom of movement, as well as agreement from Britain’s partners to give preferential treatment to key UK interests, such as London’s financial markets.
But by opening the talks by threatening to walk away if you don’t get what you want, the danger is your negotiating partners have no incentive to offer concessions because you are offering none of your own.
You also risk provoking an equally stubborn reaction in return – I can imagine the French for one turning to one another, giving a Gallic shrug and saying if the Brits want to leave, they know where the exit is.
The British government has put itself in a bind with its twin track policy of negotiating changes and holding a referendum because politically the two processes are not hermetically sealed and do not neatly follow one after the other.
Ideally, you would want to negotiate the changes and then present them to the electorate and ask for endorsement, but things do not work like that.
The campaign for the referendum has effectively already started because the Eurosceptics inside and outside the Conservative Party and their cheerleaders in much of the press are watching every move in the negotiations and will portray any concessions Mr Cameron makes as proof of a bad deal which should be rejected on referendum day.
Knowing this and wanting to avoid having to look over its shoulder while it negotiates, the Government has clearly decided it needs to communicate the message to its British audience that it is fighting hard for their interests from the off – hence Mr Hammond coming out of the blocks this week with fighting talk.
But it is not just a British audience that hears this message and the danger is the hard-line bleeds into the negotiations.
While Mr Cameron’s fellow leaders understand political debate in the UK is often more raucous, they may still react to British rhetoric negatively and the response this week of Mr Hammond’s French counterpart, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, is a case in point. He said the referendum is a big risk and, indicating Paris is in no mood for major changes, he said Britain had joined a football club and cannot decide in the middle of the match they want to play rugby.
Even the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader and one London sees as a key ally, has said freedom of movement is a “red line”.
Ms Merkel also said she would work with Britain on reform, but it is clear David Cameron will not get a deal without some compromises and it is unwise to use maximalist rhetoric which builds up an expectation back home he will get all the reforms on his wish list.
So if Mr Cameron means what he says and wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU, he needs to find a way of toning down the rhetoric for domestic consumption far enough that he can have constructive talks with the other heads of government, but not so far that the vocal Eurosceptic lobby can portray him as going soft and backtracking.
It is a very difficult balancing act and his track record in EU diplomacy over the past five years does not convince that he has the wherewithal to pull it off.