If anywhere in Europe was likely to be receptive to Cameron’s idea for a reformed European Union you might think the Nordic countries would be the place. These are small, high income countries who have also seen large scale immigration. Countries that (except for Finland) have stayed out of the Euro, and even kept their finances in some sort of order. These countries have their own reservations about European Union with Denmark joining at the same time as the UK, and Sweden much later while Iceland hasn’t joined at all, and Norway, a member of the EEA but not the EU is often heralded as an example of success outside the European Union.
But it all went wrong again for our Dave, as these potential allies rounded on Cameron to remind him that freedom of movement is a fundamental pillar of the European ideal, with Finnish PM Alexander Stubb describing it as “holy” and Prime Minister Solberg describing it as "extremely important to Norway" despite the country not actually being a member.
And they are of course absolutely right. The free movement of labour and of people throughout the European Union is as much a part of the European ideal as the free movement of goods, capital and services. Perhaps even more so for some.
If that’s what sort of reception Cameron gets from his potential allies on the periphery of the European dream, then how will his ideas be received at it’s centre in France and Germany? And how will they be received in the countries of the east who are the source of these migrations?
To anyone who has bothered to find out what the European project is all about, none of this comes as any surprise. Freedom of movement is not just some experiment started by Tony Blair, it’s one of the founding principles of the European Community that was enshrined in the Treaty of Rome over half a century ago. The idea that we can negotiate some sort of opt out or work around like countries do for certain particularly burdensome directives is either fantasy, duplicity or extreme naivety.
As a Eurosceptic I’ve always been firmly of the belief that in the case of pro-EU politicians, and Conservatives in particular it was simply duplicity. Heath later admitted that he knew full well in 1973 that it was about a federal Europe, and the only way Major could have missed this intention in the Maastricht Treaty is the unlikely scenario that he rammed it through parliament and the expense of an internal civil war in his party without even reading the pre-amble. Cameron’s post 2010 decision to renege on his promised referendum seemed like more of the same, as he claimed that changing the title of the document from “European Constitution” to “Lisbon Treaty” changed the nature of the agreement and negated the need for popular approval.
There was duplicity a plenty with Blair as well, but also an element of fantasy. After fixing the problems of Ireland and the middle-east he would bring his new and exciting brand of politics to the people of Europe, sweeping to power as an EU President with a popular mandate to reform the sclerotic economies and byzantine institutions of Europe. The idea was quietly dropped when it emerged that by 2007 no-one liked or trusted Tony Blair either in the UK or Europe.
We can discount the fantasy explanation for Cameron's behaviour, because his big idea was shot down spectacularly by Merkel last week when the most influential EU leader made it quite clear that freedom of movement was not up for negotiation, up to and including Britain leaving the EU. This kind of firm and unambiguous rejection would have the fantasist dropping the idea as quickly and comprehensively as Blair dropped his designs on the European Presidency.
So it seemed straight forward enough to assume that Cameron’s latest big idea - to gain agreement from the rest of the union on changes that would make the EU acceptable to British voters – was more of the same. My first thought was that he would secure a couple of opt outs, do a bit of window dressing on things like removing EU flags from sponsored projects, then develop some unattractive and ill defined alternative and put it to a lop sided referendum.
This is plausible while he’s going around the country telling people that he will sort it all out, and while he’s occasionally winding up other leaders by waving a veto about and other crass attempts to emulate Thatcher’s famous handbagging, but when he is going around other European leaders making a complete fool of himself by casually claiming to want to stop intra EU immigration, it suggests something different.
it makes me wonder if Cameron is less of a manipulator or fantasist and instead genuinely misunderstands the whole nature of the project. Perhaps he genuinely believes the line trotted out by generations of Tory leaders, that Europe is a trade agreement that got a little out of hand. This would actually mean he was worse than a deluded fantasist or a liar, which we expect of our politicians, and in fact a blithering idiot who has somehow managed to get himself to the position of Prime Minister without even a basic grasp of the nature of the European Union. Hardly a strong position for someone hoping to lead Britain to a better position in our most important foreign relationship.