Is a time of economic crisis an opportunity for fundamental reform, or a time to muddle through while waiting for calmer waters in which to effect lasting political and economic change? When he came to power last year, David Cameron argued for reform. He laid out plans so radical that Vince Cable complained they were ‘Maoist’. There would never be a better time to shake things up, he reasoned; if it were left until crises had passed, the momentum for change would be lost.
Now, Cameron’s zeal has vanished. A crisis, it transpires, is no time to be radical. It would be rude, almost selfish to use the summit negotiations as an opportunity to improve Britain’s relationship with the EU. So he is prepared to approve the creation of what Owen Paterson, Northern Ireland Secretary, calls a ‘new country’ — a eurozone four times our size, able to outvote us on crucial matters such as the regulation of the City of London (to the delight of the French). Europe is changing before our eyes — yet the Prime Minister believes he ought not to give anything more than ‘assurances’.
The Prime Minister’s naivity would be touching if so much were not at stake. By the time the euro crisis has passed, the German and French leaders, whoever they then are, will be in no mood to listen to polite requests for power to be repatriated from Brussels to Westminster. Why should they? They will by then have recast the EU in a form which satisfies them; they will have no interest in further discussions or granting concessions to a British prime minister who is flapping around on the outside of their grand project.
David Cameron campaigned on a promise to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, in particular to ‘bring back key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation to the UK’.