British Prime Minister David Cameron once implored his fellow Conservative Party members to “stop banging on about Europe.” But that was back in 2006, when he was just running the party as its new leader. In a speech in January 2013, as his awkward coalition government with the pro-European Union Liberal Democrats was enacting unpopular austerity cuts at home, Cameron changed course. He promised that, if re-elected, he would renegotiate the fundamental terms of the United Kingdom’s EU membership and put the result up for an in-or-out referendum to be held by the end of 2017.
Since all opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections this spring showed Britain headed for another hung parliament, with neither Labour nor Liberal Democrats eager to gamble away Britain’s European future, no one took Cameron’s threat of a referendum too seriously. Then the Conservatives beat all the odds and won a narrow majority in May. Cameron’s triumphant return to 10 Downing Street has put a British EU referendum firmly on the agenda; it could now take place as soon as May 2016.
Yet Cameron’s plan is still short on specifics. What are the broad contours of British demands for a “new deal” with Europe? How likely is Cameron to get such a deal? And if successful, will the British people vote to stay in a reformed European Union? Cameron is undoubtedly taking a significant risk by putting Britain’s EU membership up for renegotiation. International treaties are notoriously hard to change, and Cameron has remained vague on what exactly he wants to achieve. The real question is whether Cameron can claw back certain substantive powers from the EU to London, or whether he will only achieve some largely symbolic victories. His tour of European capitals over the past few weeks suggests that there are plenty of EU leaders who are willing to keep the United Kingdom in the EU by giving it a fair deal, as long as British demands are reasonable. Cameron officially tabled the outline of his reform agenda at yesterday’s EU heads of state summit, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to obtain formal treaty changes, as opposed to political assurances, before the referendum takes place.