Prime Minister David Cameron is sidestepping British diplomats to push a plan to loosen ties with the European Union, instead encouraging his own lawmakers to promote his most ambitious foreign-policy initiative.
With Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats split on the policy, the U.K. Foreign Office is barred by its rules from conducting negotiations on behalf of his Conservatives alone. Some diplomats oppose the premier’s stance, according to three people familiar with the talks.
Cameron has encouraged the Fresh Start Project, a group of Tory lawmakers who have published proposals for overhauling the EU, to meet ambassadors, journalists and their counterparts in other countries to make the case for change and explore possible avenues for achieving it. The prime minister wants to hold a referendum by 2017 on staying in the 27-nation EU, a proposal some diplomats see as a mistake, three people said.
“The Foreign Office are, bluntly, unambitious,” Andrea Leadsom, a member of Parliament and co-founder of Fresh Start, said in an interview in London. “I’ve had some extraordinarily frustrating conversations with officials there. They say things like: ‘You can only negotiate one or at the most two things at a time.’ We’re being warmly encouraged to go on with our quest.”
Relying on party allies underscores Cameron’s balancing act as he seeks to maintain British leverage on policies such as financial regulation while threatening a possible exit from the bloc.
“It’s extraordinary, I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Richard Whitman, professor of politics and international relations at University of Kent and an associate fellow at the Chatham House foreign-policy research group, said in an interview. “It’s almost like a two-track diplomatic process. The government has got plausible deniability.”
Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable described the Tory strategy as “a rather bizarre way to operate.”
“The other European countries are unlikely to take seriously anything that doesn’t have the full weight of the British government behind it,” Cable said in an interview in London today. “Anything that involves going around the back of the government and trying to negotiate directly is probably not a sensible way to proceed.”
Leadsom will visit Berlin this month, with other delegations going to Poland and the Czech Republic in May. A trip to Spain is also planned. She said that while the group has no official mandate from government, it is clear to those they meet that “we are here with Cameron’s blessing.”
It is not only members of Fresh Start who have been deployed. Robert Buckland, a Conservative who describes himself as “pro-European but not pro-status quo,” said he had been part of cross-party trips organized by Tobias Ellwood, a parliamentary aide to Europe Minister David Lidington. They included a 24-hour visit to Paris in February, where the delegation met politicians and civil servants.
“It’s being able to sit down with them and say what brings us together, what divides us, and what can we do about it,” Buckland said. “It’s a coordinated and concerted effort to give as much support to ministers as possible.”
Even before Cameron announced his plan to renegotiate EU membership terms in a Jan. 23 speech, it was causing difficulties. The prime minister had planned to outline the proposal abroad, and he was entitled to diplomatic support by virtue of his office. Even so, the referendum proposal at the heart of the speech was an announcement of the policy of the Conservative Party, not the coalition government.
U.K. diplomatic staff in The Hague, where Cameron originally wanted to speak, were told it would be a government speech that contained a large amount of coalition policy, according to two people familiar with the planning, who declined to be identified because of the confidential nature of the discussions.
In the event, Cameron had to delay the speech because of a hostage crisis at a gas plant in Algeria involving British workers, and he made his announcement the following week in London.
Some diplomats questioned whether it was appropriate for links to the speech to appear on British embassy websites, the people said. Cameron’s officials usually remove party-political content from speech transcripts before they’re posted on government sites. On this occasion, they took the view that it would be counterproductive to remove the referendum pledge, as that was the most important part of the speech.
While Cameron set out general themes for what sort of EU he wanted to see, he offered few specifics. That has led European diplomats to consult the Fresh Start group, Leadsom said. She’s been told that Merkel has read their “Manifesto for Change,” published Jan. 16.
“We were given a very heavy hint by the Foreign Office that evangelizing on this in foreign capitals would be a good thing,” Chris Heaton-Harris, a Tory lawmaker who will lead the Fresh Start trip to Warsaw and Prague, said in an interview. “We’re not negotiating, we’re putting ideas forward and listening to the reaction to them.”
The post-speech strategy, according to diplomats, is to begin attempting to win concessions in the margins of talks even before 2015, when a general election will give Cameron the chance to put his plan to the country and then make it formal government policy, if he wins.
“Civil servants are by inclination cautious,” Whitman said. “What would happen if a diplomat was caught renegotiating, when that hadn’t been agreed within the coalition?”
The chief obstacle, the diplomats said, is any suggestion of changes to EU treaties, which would be needed to deliver Cameron’s desire to see the bloc change the way it makes decisions and functions. Any overhaul that needed a referendum would be unpopular with governments such as those of Ireland, Denmark or France that might have to hold popular votes of their own with the risk of defeat.
Cameron, who visited Merkel in Germany at the end of last week, has argued that treaty change is inevitable to deal with the decision-making processes of the countries that use the European single currency.
According to Whitman, it’s also significant that other countries are prepared to meet the Tory lawmaker delegations.
“It’s really interesting that other governments are prepared to have discussions on what can be negotiated on,” he said. “People think that the EU is black and white, in or out, but there’s an awful lot of gray already.”