A tantric speech? What will David Cameron do on Europe?

The Guardian reports: Asked in the Commons by the Labour MP Gavin Shuker whether he could ever imagine Britain leaving the EU, David Cameron  said: “That is not a position I support, so I do not spend my time thinking about it. But he added: “Clearly all futures for Britain are imaginable. We are in charge of own destiny, we can make our own choices. I believe the choice we should make is to stay in the European Union, to be members of the single market, to maximise our impact in Europe, but where we are unhappy with parts of the relationship we shouldn’t be frightened of standing up and saying so.

Question:

How would you read Cameron’s  statement?

Answers:

Tim BaleProfessor, Chair in Politics, Queen Mary, University London, Author of the book: The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron

I think Cameron’s playing the game here: he has to be able to credibly threaten exit from the EU in order to strengthen his negotiating position both at home (among his Eurosceptic backbenchers) and abroad (other heads of government he hopes to persuade to do some sort of deal). I’m quite sure he would prefer to keep us in – and Business would be alarmed if that were not the case – but conceding that leaving is a possibility is both realistic and part of his opening bid in a high-stakes game.

Alex Warleigh-LackProfessor, The School of Politics, University of Surrey

I think this is a bargaining chip. Cameron is trying to show his backbenchers and the general public in the UK that he is a Eurosecptic. He needs to do this even more than before because UKIP, the UK Independence Party, is rising and rising in the polls, appealing to many Tory voters as it climbs. But he’s also using it as a weapon in negotiations in Brussels: if he states publicly that the UK could manage outside the EU, he may get more concessions from other member states who would rather the UK stayed in, or avoid a UK veto on matters such as the banking union.

It’s worrying, but not unexpected.

Simon UsherwoodSenior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

I would take it as a simple statement of fact, rather than anything more: Cameron doesn’t want to leave the EU, but he needs to keep his backbench MPs in line, so has to give them something to enjoy.

Cameron is still trying to work out how he can escape from the situation he has made from himself with his ‘tantric’ speech on UK-EU relations, which can now only disappoint one group or another.

Oliver DaddowReader in International Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

1. David Cameron is having to battle very hard with an increasingly vocal section of his party and the Conservative-supporting press which has come out in favour of a ‘new’ form of UK-EU relations. A pragmatist on European issues, Cameron’s view on the EU is largely refracted through the lenses of domestic party politics. I suspect he has no hugely strong opinion either way. Others in his party do, however.

2. Ever the populist, Boris Johnson is suggesting many ways in which a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of entry could work out so the UK is only really a part of the single European market but little more. This is the classic Eurosceptical position advocated by UKIPand others, it seems.

3. A referendum on Uk membership might or might not take place after a period of renegotiation. If one were to take place without a renegotiation it would be fairly easy to see withdrawal being the outcome. After a renegotiation this would probably be less likely.

4. For those supportive of Britain’s membership of the EU there is a silver lining to the referendum debate in four regards. First, no member of any of the 3 main political parties has ever called for UK withdrawal from the EU, in public at any rate; Michael Gove has come the closest. Second, apart from the Daily Express (from November 2010) no national newspaper has actively pushed for UK withdrawal, despite hefty opposition to the EU in many segments of the press and media more generally. Third, big businesses are generally in favour of UK membership and in 2013 are, I believe, going to get together to become more vocal in making this case to the public (eg there is an event in London on 11 January at which I am speaking, organised by Business for New Europe). Fourth, the US has started to suggest the UK would be weaker outside the EU. As in the past, the US voice is often for Britain to be at the heart of Europe for security, political and economic reasons. This will be a powerful counterpoint to the Eurosceptic views of going it alone.

For all these reasons, I am confident that a positive case can and should be made, and that a referendum ‘no’ is not the certainty it might now appear, after 20 years when the Eurosceptics have had an empty playing field to play on.

In short, it’s not a step in policy yet.

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