The PM and the EU: Cameron’s zen art of compromise maintenance

by Stephen Tall on February 9, 2013

David Cameron - Some rights reserved by The Prime Minister's OfficeCredit where it’s due. If David Cameron had returned to Britain empty-handed or walked out of the EU budget talks in a fit of pique he’d have been pilloried. Plenty of his opponents were hoping he’d do just that.

As it is, he’s able to boast (not without justification) that he’s successfully negotiated a 3% real-terms cut in the EU budget — to a cumulative €960bn (2014-20) — and protected the British rebate. Nick Clegg, who’s been a particular critic of the Prime Minister’s European adventures, praised it as the “right deal for Britain and for Europe. It’s the best outcome for British taxpayers and people right across Europe”.

As the Economist wryly notes: ‘The old joke is that the French get the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the British get to keep the rebate and the Germans get to pay the bill. Little has changed since then, except that these days one must add the fact that Poland also gets to keep its cohesion funds.’

David Cameron has, it seems, learned from his botched negotiations of December 2011, when he found himself entirely isolated within Europe. Though the Tories and their client press spun this as Dave’s ‘Hugh Grant in Love Actually moment’ it was, in truth, a failure.

To be fair, the Prime Minister seems to have recognised that he couldn’t credibly sustain another farce on this scale. This time round, he has invested considerable time and effort in building alliances with those who share a similar outlook to him, such as Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and in particular Germany’s Angela Merkel — including serving her favourite cake, according to the Telegraph’s James Kirkup (Donauwellen, “a heavy custard-and-cherry cake named after the waves in the Danube”, since you ask).

It is this bridge-building which has paid off, rather than the obligatory foot-stamping forced on Mr Cameron by his excitable and truculent Europhobic backbenchers. It’s no coincidence that Germany has also got exactly what it had always wanted from these negotiations: a budget just below 1% of GNI.

Of course, the EU budget remains deeply imperfect. The Common Agricultural Policy and its subsidies for rich farmers remains, swallowing close to 40% of the entire budget for the next seven years. Plenty of other pork has been scraped from the barrel to secure agreement from the 27 EU nations. But that’s the nature of compromise, something David Cameron has had to buy into in his diplomacy both in the Coalition and the EU.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.