Cameron Decoded: What He Said On Europe and What He Meant

Britain's prime minister had a message for voters back home, and for politicians around the EU. But what was it?

Prime Minister David Cameron began his formal renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU on Tuesday with a speech in London. Here are the key passages, and what they meant.

The Push for Reform

“Almost three years ago, I made a speech about Europe. I argued that the European Union needed to reform if it was to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. I argued that Britain’s best future lay within a reformed European Union, if the necessary changes could be agreed. And I promised the British people that, if I was re-elected as Prime Minister, we would have an In-Out referendum.”

Translation: Forget “the British people”, who are broadly unconcerned about the EU. This was a promise made to the Conservative Party. There was a time when Cameron used to warn Conservatives against "banging on about Europe", but in 2013, he surrendered and gave them what they wanted. This speech set out how he’s dealing with the consequences of that.

The Concerns of Britain

“Today I am writing to the President of the European Council setting out how I want to address the concerns of the British people and why I believe that the changes that Britain is seeking will benefit not just Britain, but the EU as a whole.”

Translation: It may be that Cameron’s fellow EU leaders think that the last thing they need on top of a migrant crisis and the Euro crisis is a Brexit crisis. His message to them was: “There’s a way in which this could be good for all of us. Honestly.”

Statesman on Display

“Britain has contributed in full measure to the freedom that Europe’s nations enjoy today. Across the continent, from Ypres to Monte Cassino, from Bayeux to Arnhem, in stone cold cemeteries lie the remains of British servicemen who crossed the Channel to help subjugated nations throw off the tyrant’s yoke…”

Translation: Remind you of any other British prime ministers? Here’s a hint: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.” Think Homburg and cigar.

“...and return liberty to her rightful place on what Churchill called ‘this noble continent’.”


Photographer: Capt. Horton/ IWM via Getty Images

 That’s the chap.

One Market, Lots of Currencies

“Non-Euro members like Britain which are outside the eurozone need certain safeguards in order to protect the single market and our ability to decide its rules and to ensure that we face neither discrimination nor additional costs from the integration of the eurozone.”

Translation: The rest of the EU may think the U.K.’s finance sector is overgrown and out of control, but the U.K. thinks theirs is tiny and over-regulated, and doesn’t want to be made to follow.

“There should be no discrimination and no disadvantage for any business on the basis of the currency of their country. The integrity of the Single Market must be protected.”

Translation: No, they can’t have the currency traders, either.

Ever Closer Union (Not)

“We are a proud, independent nation. We intend to stay that way. So we need to be honest about this. The commitment in the Treaty to an ever closer union is not a commitment that should apply any longer to Britain. We do not believe in it. We do not subscribe to it.”

Translation: These may seem like just words, but they are words that Euroskeptics talk about a lot.

Friends With or Without Benefits

“We have proposed that people coming to Britain from the EU must live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in work benefits or social housing. And that we should end the practice of sending child benefit overseas. Now, I understand how difficult some of these welfare issues are for other Member States. And I am open to different ways of dealing with this issue.”

The climbdown: This is the trickiest part of what Cameron is asking for, and he’s offering EU partners a way out: They need to give him something that he can sell as “controlling immigration”.

Deal Or No Deal

“I have every confidence that we will achieve an agreement that works for Britain and works for our European partners. And if and when we do so, as I said three years ago, I will campaign to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union. I’ll campaign for it with all my heart and all my soul, because that will be unambiguously in our national interest.

“But if we can’t reach such an agreement, and if Britain’s concerns were to be met with a deaf ear, which I do not believe will happen, then we will have to think again about whether this European Union is right for us. As I have said before – I rule nothing out."

The threat: Cameron insists he’s not bluffing about possibly backing a “Leave” vote.

“But just as those who are advocating staying in the EU at all costs have to answer serious questions so those who think Britain should just leave now also need to think hard about the implications of their arguments – and the possible risks of the course they advocate.”

Cameron’s message to voters: “There are lunatics on both wings of this argument. I’m like you, a sensible pragmatist.

A supporter hands out U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leaflets in Ramsgate, east of London, on Sept. 7.
A supporter hands out U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leaflets in Ramsgate, east of London, on Sept. 7.
Photographer: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

National Insecurity

“In 2015, our membership of the European Union is not just a matter of trade and commerce, of pounds and pence. It is about our national security as well as our economic security. The world is undoubtedly a more dangerous place than when I made my speech at Bloomberg three years ago.”

Translation: The prime minister isn’t saying that if Britain votes to leave the EU, terrorists will set off a nuclear bomb in Trafalgar Square. But he can’t rule it out.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine, and European leaders met, it was Britain that pushed through sanctions to penalise Russia and ensure a robust response. On Iran, it was Britain that helped impose the tough sanctions which got Iran to the negotiating table. These things were done through the EU.”

Note to readers: The EU is an international group where Russia doesn’t have a veto.

“I am not saying for one moment that Britain couldn’t survive outside the European Union. Of course we could.”

Note the choice of language: Britain could “survive” outside the EU. Deliveries of fresh water and foodstuffs would continue across the country, however people vote.

“The question is whether we would be more successful in than out? Whether being in the European Union adds to our economic security or detracts from it? Whether being in the European Union makes us safer or less safe?

“It will be your decision whether to remain in the EU on the basis of the reforms we secure, or whether we leave. Your decision. Nobody else’s. Not politicians’. Not Parliament’s. Not lobby groups’. Not mine.

“Just you. You, the British people, will decide.

“At that moment, you will hold this country’s destiny in your hands."

No pressure, voters: But you hold your grandchildren’s future in your hands, and it’s a cold, scary world out there.

Seconds Out

“To those who suggest that a decision in the referendum to leave would merely produce another stronger renegotiation and then a second referendum in which Britain would stay I say think again. The renegotiation is happening right now. And the referendum that follows will be a once in a generation choice. An in or out referendum. If we vote to leave, then we will leave. There will not be another renegotiation and another referendum.”

Translation: Boris Johnson’s been saying Britain could have a second referendum if it voted to leave. Cameron is pointing out that he’s prime minister, and Johnson isn’t.

“I say to those who are thinking about voting to leave. Think very carefully, because this choice cannot be undone.”

Translation: It’s scary out there. Did the prime minister mention that at all?

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Cameron Outlines His EU Negotiation Demands
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