Cameron May Be Unwise to Rush EU Reforms

As soon as the referendum is over, Conservatives will start to prepare for the post-Cameron era.

David Cameron Angela Merkel
British prime minister David Cameron walks with German chancellor Angela Merkel outside his Chequers country residence in Buckinghamshire, England, October 9, 2015 (Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann)

Prime Minister David Cameron seems in a hurry to secure changes in Britain’s relations with the rest of the European Union. If he got a deal next month, he could call a referendum on membership as early as this summer.

Politico reports that Cameron has canceled talks with his counterparts from Denmark and Sweden this week to schedule meetings with officials in Brussels instead.

Meanwhile, diplomats are working hard to find a compromise on Cameron’s most controversial demand: a four-year ban on labor migrants from other EU nations claiming benefits in the United Kingdom.

The proposal is probably unacceptable in its current form, but Cameron has said he could live with an alternative that accomplishes much the same thing.

The other 27 member states agree with the rest of his reforms, which include giving national parliaments more power and taking Britain out of “ever-closer union.”

What’s the rush?

It’s unclear why Cameron is so keen on securing a deal before leaders convene for their regular European Council next month.

His own foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told a parliamentary committee earlier this week that it might be “inappropriate and unwise” for Britain to insist on reaching agreement right when the rest of Europe is desperately seeking solutions to the migrant crisis.

The first ministers of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also urged Cameron not to call a referendum this summer when it would conflict with elections in their respective regions.

“I think to have a referendum campaign starting in parallel would be disrespectful to those important elections,” Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish leader, told the BBC this weekend.

Political calculations

Perhaps Cameron hopes the proximity of the votes will boost support for his ruling Conservative Party to the detriment of both the pro-European Labour and Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party.

Or perhaps the leader who once urged his party to stop “banging on about Europe” just wants to get it over with.

If that’s the case, he may want to think again.

Janan Ganesh, a political commentator, previously cautioned the prime minister against seeing the referendum as a “chore to get out of the way, as if the following morning will bring new vigor and a world of possibilities.” He overestimates the loyalty of fellow Conservatives, Ganesh argued in the Financial Times, who — whatever the outcome of the referendum — will start preparing for the post-Cameron era the day after the vote.

Before the last election, Cameron said he wouldn’t stand for a third term. He is unlikely to burden his party with a leadership contest close the 2020 election, so a resignation is expected somewhere around 2018.

If Cameron fails to persuade Britons to vote to stay in the EU, his premiership would become untenable.

But even if a majority votes for continued membership, the end of Cameron’s tenure will close in as well, according to Ganesh.

Tory outers will not forgive his part in eliciting the wrong answer from the British public. Everyone else will sense that the point of his premiership has expired.

Cameron has given himself until 2017 to call the plebiscite. He may find there is good reason to wait until then.