After five years of British ambivalence to the EU, 27 European capitals are now preparing to get love-bombed by David Cameron. Mark Leonard asks whether the British leader will get his way on a European reform package.
This week, the British Prime Minister is in Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Poland and Germany and he has pledged to talk to every single EU leader before the EU summit in Brussels at the end of June. Cameron's quest is to secure a European reform package that will lie at the heart of his campaign to keep Britain in the EU in a referendum to be held before 2017.
It seems appropriate that his trip started with a dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker, a man whose appointment as President of the European Commission Cameron allegedly claimed would cause the UK to leave the EU.
Many on the continent are anxious to find out what exactly Cameron's reform package will entail. Much of his agenda is not about Britain, but a general push to deepen the single market, remove red tape and push for international trade deals. Cameron has set out his main priorities in two important speeches so far, in January 2013 and in November 2014. According to this and political speculation, four issues are likely to be at the heart of a renegotiation: immigration (particularly benefits for EU migrants), Eurozone-caucusing, national parliament power, and the 'ever-closer union.'
They do care about migration
First, migration. British citizens may not show a particular interest in Europe - but they care about migration. Rather than restricting free movement of labour - which could create serious problems as it would be in opposition to a main pillar of EU membership - Cameron aims to change the rules for access to state benefits, specifically the tax credits offered to low-paid workers (so-called in-work benefits). Second, Cameron seeks a reassurance for non-eurozone members that the eurozone will not exploit its majority to impose decisions on non-eurozone members that affect the single market. Third, the prime minister wants more power for national parliaments. This could be achieved through the so-called red-card procedure that allows parliaments to block EU legislation. Fourth is the demand to drop the commitment to "ever closer union" from the preamble to EU treaties.
The tricky questions are about whether treaty change will be necessary to accommodate these demands and at what speed this needs to happen. Also, heated discussions are taking place in London about when the referendum will take place and how it will be phrased.
Some have interpreted the recently announced Merkel-Hollande plan for further eurozone integration - which the two leaders will present at the same June EU summit - as a pre-emptive obstacle to Cameron, by pledging deeper eurozone integration and ruling out treaty change. On eurozone integration, Cameron has actually changed British government policy. In the past every integration had to involve Britain. Now Britain is very supportive of eurozone integration, as long as there are measures in place to stop eurozone caucusing.
Whether treaty change is necessary for Cameron's agenda is something that legal experts are pondering about - some version of these changes can most likely be achieved through secondary legislation. But British officials are pushing for at least some minor treaty change for symbolic and practical reasons. The problem for Cameron is that even if he convinces the other member states to agree to treaty change, it will be impossible to get those changes ratified in all member states before the UK referendum. Cameron has promised to hold the referendum before the end of 2017. But he may be tempted to do it sooner - while he still has political capital. Hence the referendum could take place as early as May 2016, the day of the elections for local government, Scottish Parliament and London Assembly & Mayor which would maximize the turnout.
Eurosceptics are likely to try to use the renegotiation agenda as a covert path to exit: by first making impossible demands they can then say - seemingly in sorrow rather than anger - that Cameron was unfortunately unable to achieve the objective and thus they are against.
David Cameron and his finance minister, George Osborne, now realize that they need to pivot from being fence-sitters on the British membership question to being the leaders of the 'In'-campaign. They need to recognize that even though there is a huge desire for reform across the EU, the referendum will be won by showing that EU membership as a whole offers Britain a more prosperous and secure future rather than by fighting a campaign on intricacies of renegotiation. This means that they have an interest in sticking to the narrow agenda which can be resolved quickly in the hope of having the referendum as early as possible.
Mark Leonard is Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.