Every commentator and his dog has advice to offer Cameron on his EU referendum strategy. I made a few suggestions myself in the Guardian last week; now it’s the turn of Matthew Elliott, who heads up a eurosceptic pressure group, to do the same in the Telegraph.
Most of Mr Elliott’s ideas seem sensible at first glance — but lurking behind them is his fear that eurosceptics are losing the battle.
Take the claim that you should set clear objectives before you start, so you have something against which you can measure the outcome. That sounds like a good piece of advice. But things are much more complicated than Mr Elliott suggests. From Cameron’s perspective, it would only make sense to advertise his aims publicly if he was confident that his party would get behind them — and that is patently not the case.
On the one hand, his hard-right Conservative backbenchers are already trying to bounce him into making impossible or nonsensical demands so that, when those demands fail, they can ‘prove’ that Europe is unreformable. On the other hand, he has already shown a penchant for dressing up trivial or cosmetic changes as big successes in exactly the way this article describes. If he is to have any genuine success in his negotiations, he will have to tread a fine line between these two undesirable extremes. And, since he’s unsure in advance where he might secure results and where he won’t, it’s tactically wise in terms of party management not to draw too many red lines.
But Matthew Elliott’s strangest argument is to assume, without any justification, that it would somehow be ‘cheating’ to take into account existing, ongoing EU reform when it comes to arguing for a Yes vote.
He quotes with obvious disapproval Lord Hannay’s point that reform is the normal business of the European Union, “presentable to the British public as being something that is very good and in our interests”. But this is not some sinister plot to dupe the electorate. It’s simply pointing out a fact. As I wrote last week, reform is what the EU does, day in, day out:
Reform is an ongoing process, not a one-off event. The question now, as ever, is simply what’s next on the agenda. And that agenda is pretty busy at the moment. We’re undertaking a massive, often controversial review and simplification of European legislation. We’ve just implemented a fundamental reform of the common fisheries policy that even Greenpeace has hailed as “the solution to many of the struggles facing local fishermen”. We’re investing heavily in cross-border competitiveness, deepening the single market, and updating our environmental protection rules. We’re improving transparency, rewriting the rulebook about how European laws are made, and hardwiring impact assessments into the legislative process. And we’re focusing our efforts on areas where acting together at a European level rather than a national level will save money, or improve effectiveness, or both.
It’s a particularly blinkered kind of euroscepticism which insists that only reforms especially cooked up by the British government, preferably against the will of everyone else around the table, can possibly be of any value.