Richard North, 16/12/2012  

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In between the Christmas cheer at last week's European Council there was, according to the loss-making Guardian, a sour note injected when Fran├žois Hollande openly declared his opposition to an "a la carte" Europe in which members can choose which bits of EU law applies to them.

This basically shoots Mr Cameron's fox. Hollande is making it very clear that the prime minister's fantasy of exploiting the euro crisis to renegotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership and claw back powers from Brussels has nowhere to go.

The French president could not have been clearer, insisting that member states had to comply with the terms of EU treaties they had signed and ratified, saying: "Europe is not a Europe where you can take back competences. It is not Europe a la carte".

The Guardian recognises that these remarks highlight the problems Cameron might find if he wants to come good on his expected pledge to seek to "repatriate" powers from Brussels before possibly putting a new settlement to a referendum in Britain following the next general election.

There is little prospect, it says, of EU treaties being reopened before the next European parliament elections in 2014. In order to succeed in his gameplan, Cameron would need to persuade 26 other governments to allow concessions for Britain, an achievement that looks improbable at present.

Furthermore, where France's opposition has been articulated publicly, is echoed in private remarks from senior German officials who fear that a successful UK campaign could open a pandora's box, with several countries seeking to pick and choose which parts of EU law they want to apply.

Several other EU countries, including Ireland and the Netherlands, also want avoid any reopening of treaties, since it could trigger years of gruelling brinkmanship resulting in the need for national referendums on a new dispensation.

Nevertheless, there is still an unrealistic expectation that there can be some movement. British officials, we are told, have "talked optimistically" of using the recent banking supervision deal as a template for gaining further exemptions from EU regulation in other policy areas.

Cameron too is inhabiting a parallel universe, stating that the debates about sovereignty and control are changing the European Union. As the European Union and the eurozone make changes that they need, he believes there are "opportunities for others, including Britain, to make changes ourselves".

Backing their man, government officials in the UK argue there is nothing in the EU treaties proscribing the repatriation of powers from Brussels. A "Downing Street source" then says: "It's wrong to say you can't repatriate powers. There's no clause written down anywhere that says this can't be done".

There, of course, officials are right. There is nothing in theory to stop powers being repatriated, but this requires a new treaty, invoking Article 48 of the Treaty of the European Union. And there are so many hurdles to successful completion that it would be foolhardy to rely on the process.

Unfortunately, "foolhardy" seem to be in fashion these days, with Boris Johnson calling for a referendum on Britain's EU membership before the next election.

This easy "hit", however, embodies a great danger for committed "outers", who feel that a premature referendum, without a clear strategy having been evolved, risks losing the vote. Far from a route to freedom, a referendum could lock the UK into the European Union for another generation.

Strategic thinking and tactics, however, are definitely not in vogue, as UKIP wows the Mail on Sunday. Farage's "Jack-the-lad" image is certainly attractive to some, and is filling the political vacuum left by leaders of other parties who increasingly lack credibility. While their popularity drains away, Farage's homespun philosophy is in the ascendancy.

These local politics, though, are unlikely to impress the "colleagues". The BBC see them recovering their confidence, which suggests that they are not in the mood to barter with the UK. All too soon, therefore, the British electorate may discover that playtime is over and they are embroiled in a fight for which they are singularly unprepared.

Then, and only then, they might just realise that EU politics are not just another TV reality show.


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