Comment: Terry Murden
Cameron needs a quick hit on Europe, but it won’t be easy
The Prime Minister has been reinvigorated by his General Election success which has given him a mandate for change, though exactly what change he can achieve will be subject to two key factors: the willingness of his European counterparts to renegotiate on what some regard as pillars of the EU, and curbing his combative instinct which may be vital to getting what he wants.
The central, or most public of issues, is immigration and Mr Cameron has used his election victory to reclaim the argument from UKIP for greater control on the flow of people around Europe.
He may, however, find considerable difficulty on this score. European leaders have drawn a red line on the free movement of labour and the biggest resistance to weaken it comes from the newer members in the eastern territories which are the main source of contention.
Progress is more likely to be made on tightening up on benefits claimants, with immigrants having tougher conditions imposed on them. He has made it an “absolute requirement” to curb these benefits and this may be an area of compromise.
He may also be pushing at an open door in demanding a reduction in the volume of legislation and red tape emanating from Brussels as this is supported by those who want to make it easier for people to move around the continent.
His own negotiating style will be vital. In a briefing given to Daily Business one EU official said Mr Cameron needs to learn quickly that the confrontational nature of British politics does not play well in Europe where compromise and horse-trading is more common. That will mean giving as well as taking and that needs to start with a firm commitment to Britain remaining in the EU.
He does at least have a Commons majority behind him that has strengthened Britain’s hand and should enable the debate to move “out of the freezer”, said the official.
Mr Cameron enters the talks with the CBI urging British business to speak up and support membership of a reformed EU.
Sir Mike Rake, president of the CBI, made it clear in his speech to the organisation’s annual dinner this week that he sees “no credible alternative future to EU membership” adding that “business must be crystal clear that membership is in our national interest. The EU is key to our national prosperity.”
But there are political headwinds for Mr Cameron to tackle. He will need no reminding that treating the EU as a mere trading bloc is no longer a credible option and that beyond commercial interests it exists to create and negotiate conditions on defence, human rights, the environment and health.
In many respects they cannot be treated as mutually exclusive and so a simplistic demand for change is unrealistic.
He has accepted that change will not be easy, nor quick, though he is being pressed from all sides to bring forward the referendum on EU membership to next year. This may help focus minds among his negotiating team, but it may also make it difficult for him to achieve the sort of settlement he would prefer.