As with any bureaucratic body, the EU pulses to a rhythm of regular meetings. The EU being a more complex body than most, multiple cycles of meetings are sinuously interwoven. Most prominently, at least four times a year, the Prime Ministers of the 28 member countries convene for the European Council. The most vital business of the day is dealt with at these summits.
Anyone with experience of meetings knows that to control the agenda is to control the meeting. The terms of Britain’s renegotiation with the EU had been an important agenda item for successive meetings for some time. At the December 2015 European Council, the European Council agreed to find mutually satisfactory solutions in four areas of concern at its February meeting: competitiveness; economic governance; sovereignty; and social benefits and free movement. The stage was set for David Cameron to conclude his deal.
However, in the run-up to the February meeting, the migration crisis became still more pressing than previously. Far from dying down over the winter months, numbers of migrants to the EU continued in high numbers. EU member states had been put under unprecedented pressure by the vast migrations of 2015 and if no action was taken there was every prospect that 2016 would prove still more distressing. Should this crisis be addressed before Britain’s EU renegotiation?
David Cameron did not relent. He forced the Council to keep up the pace on the renegotiation, coming away with his agreed deal which he then recommended to the British public. He duly set the referendum date for 23 June. The migration crisis was left to be addressed at a later Council meeting.
We can speculate as to his thinking. If the migration crisis was to get worse, it was imperative to hold the referendum before it peaked in the late summer, so that the campaign was not overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder prompted by migration throughout Europe. By insisting on rapidly agreeing a deal, he hoped to get the vote out of the way first. It was in truth an implied vote of no confidence in the EU to be able to address the migration crisis.
With the benefit of hindsight, this looks like a serious error for the Remain campaign, for the Conservatives and for David Cameron personally. By insisting on prioritising his pet project ahead of something that was demonstrably urgent and important, he alienated his fellow EU leaders. It’s hard to accept that technical arguments about the incidence of social security benefits are particularly critical if you’re trying to work out how to stop half a million pairs of feet tramping across your country in the coming weeks. That cannot have improved the terms of the deal.
Worse, if David Cameron wanted to persuade the public to remain in the EU, he needed the EU to operate effectively on the pressing subject of the day. Britain, just as much as the rest of the EU, had a compelling motive to get migration under control. On this occasion, the statesmanlike thing to do was the politically smart thing to do.
Imagine an alternative history of the last few months in which David Cameron had decided to defer consideration of the renegotiation with the EU until the migration crisis had been solved. Initially he would have come under more pressure from his more belligerent Leaver colleagues to get on with it, but that would have been background noise only. The terms agreed in relation to the migration would probably not have been settled until the March European Council meeting, so the budget would have taken place before the Cabinet had divided on the referendum question. Iain Duncan Smith would no doubt have bitten his tongue, the better to wield influence in the referendum campaign when it was eventually launched. So the budget would have passed far more smoothly and the government would continue to feel more purposeful.
The next European Council meeting is due in June, so the local election round would have taken place without constant noises off. With the spotlight on Labour divisions, the Conservatives would have almost certainly done considerably better. The big political story would be the continuing agonies of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
Meanwhile, the media would have taken proper note of the sharply diminished number of migrants. If David Cameron had inserted himself in the narrative of the deal, he would be getting part of the credit for this.
In the meantime, the two rival camps for Leave would still be slugging it out. The argument was only ended by the Electoral Commission so it is unlikely that it would have ended otherwise. This could only be to Remain’s benefit.
The deal would still need to be struck, of course. Would it have been any better than the deal got in February? David Cameron would have had a legitimate claim for extra flexibility from other Prime Ministers. But let’s assume that he got exactly the same deal as before and called the referendum over the summer for the end of September 2016. The referendum would have clashed with much less government business and the slugfest could have taken place without distraction. The Conservative party would look rather more coherent than before. And the mood music from the perspective of Remain would sound rather more upbeat.
All this was lost because David Cameron decided to prioritise his own hobby horse. Right now it looks like a very serious mistake.