Being seen as 'Mr No' has its limitations: Lessons for Cameron from the EU summit

David Cameron may not be making many friends, but his call for cuts to eurocrats is his cutest trick in a while Photo: Reuters

So, here we are in Brussels and tension is building already. On the streets, the talk is of little else: will they reach a deal? Won't they?

Meanwhile, Westminster's finest hacks sit in the all-too-familiar bunker waiting and waiting and waiting, just as we always do.

Since I have plenty of time to make observations, here, in no particular order, are some you may or may not consider pertinent:

  • The lesson of all recent European summits is that Europe's leaders couldn't decide their way out of a paper bag. They have turned prevarication, delay and obfuscation into an international art form. If kicking a can down a road was a sport, nobody would touch them.
  • As is also so often the case with these summits, any reasonable perusal of the detail leaves one confused as to what actually would be a good and what a poor outcome. Should we be looking for the EU's actual spending proposals to be frozen or cut, or the credit limit we ascribe to them? The pre-summit spin naturally glossed over this important detail. However, that said...
  • David Cameron's call for eurocrats to take the same kind of cuts to their pay and conditions as they are proposing for their benighted southern neighbours was the cutest trick he has pulled for a while. Downing Street officials say he was given a stony reception when he outlined them to European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and co yesterday and one can hardly be surprised. However, his logic is unarguable and if he comes back from here with something he can vaguely present as a budget freeze and some nice cuts to pay and pensions for eurocrats, he can probably present it as a triumph.
  • The obvious reason agreement is so hard to come by is that getting 27 people who represent markedly different countries to agree on anything is always, by definition, hard. But it seems to me the issue remains a lack of a genuine sense of solidarity across the EU. All unions involve fiscal transfers. The South East of England transfers funds to Northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland; New York to Georgia and Louisiana and so on. But in Europe, no one really wants to give money to anyone else. And it is not just the Brits, either. The leaders might, but the people don't. I grant you that this is not a startlingly original observation, but it strikes me anew every time I sit here (along with how much I detest strip lighting and underground bunkers).
  • Nevertheless, it must have (and indeed has) struck David Cameron that being seen as 'Mr No' has its limitations. From various conversations with members of his inner circle of the past fortnight, I get the impression that he and his closest allies are doing a lot of thinking about this. A grand renegotiation is coming. Once the Euro is saved (if it is) and the crisis begins to recede (if it ever does), there will be a new treaty and a radical push for an ever closer Union. Nobody expects us to want to be a part of this, but Mr Cameron has an ever growing list of things we want less of and he needs to keep some skin in the game to have a chance of really getting what he needs. How to do this? Well, I suspect the answer will be to concentrate on finding issues on which he can convincingly say we want more Europe. The obvious one is security and military co-operation. Mr Cameron thinks our joint operations with the French in Libya worked well and it may be that he concludes there is room to expand co-operation dramatically across Europe, for us to take the lead and for the Germans and others who one might reasonably argue currently get their international security for free to start stumping up for it. Given how cash-strapped the MOD is, you can see the attraction. But I suppose the question is; are there any other areas in which we could say we want to be more in to offset the ever-lengthening list of those in which we want to me more out?
Unions involve fiscal transfers, but no one really wants to give money to anyone else. Credit: Yves Herman / Reuters
  • I know I say this every time I am here and that it annoys some of you (on the grounds that it is petty), but the fact that we all get fed (well) for free in the bunker here does sum up part of the reason why Europe has gone wrong in recent years. There is just no reason on earth why you should pay for my lunch. And I am sure you will all say Amen to that.