I have been fascinated by the events over the past week concerning Britain's participation, or lack of, in Europe. I have worked pretty hard to understand what is going on and read extensively across the media to try and form a view as to what Cameron's veto actually means. I do not think I am there yet, but here is a list of things which I believe to be true based on that reading.
(i) Cameron outmatched
It seems obvious that when it comes to politicking Cameron is still in short trousers compared to the mastery displayed by Sarkozy. Sarkozy did not want a rewriting of the treaty that Merkel proposed but was able to sidestep it thanks to Cameron, upon whom he could easily pour all the blame. That Cameron insisted that his demands were trivial matters not at all; it was easy for Sarkozy to turn them into requests which did not meet the prevailing mood in the room to put national interests aside for the sake of the EU. Chapeau!
How did that come to pass? Largely through lack of preparation, though one has to wonder whether the Conservatives also fancied themselves a little too much in terms of negotiation and political maneuvering. The last time they were in such a position was in negotiating a coalition with the LibDems. In that case, it was the Lib Dems who turned up with knives to a gunfight. In that case though the LibDems were outmatched but did not have any time to prepare. Cameron has no such excuse: both he and his Euro-connected Deputy should have recognised that weakness and worked doubly hard to compensate for it. Cameron came too late and was easily beaten. It was his own fault.
(ii) This is not the right end point
This cannot be the final outcome. It is not sustainable for Britain to remain at the fringes for its own sake. It is naive to suppose that 26 members will not evolve positions on key topics and then spend time waiting for Britain to catch up when it joins for main plenary. See above and see the multiple references to Lyndon B Johnson's earthy refrain: better [to have him] in the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Cameron's demands and subsequent veto give further credence to the observation that Britain is too dependent on the Services sector (and particularly banking), and therefore it cannot now be out of discussion by its own volition which will look to shape how that business is conducted in Europe. So, if this is not an outcome which Britain can sustain how do we change it?
I can see three outs:
First, the Euro may collapse. If it does, I dare say we'll hear about the prescience of Cameron from his own PR team. There will be a moment then to rejoin the conversation and look to how a single market is rebuilt. There may be some initial reluctance from Germany and others to warm to Britain but in the chaos bygones will have to be bygones and even the most ardent anglophobe would be hardpressed to suggest that it was Britain's fault.
Second, the Government fails. I do not think that the math supports this. I am sure Clegg has been tempted to consider throwing his lot in with Labour but the thought can only be fleeting. The LibDems and Labour do not have enough to carry Parliament and the Conservatives one suspects would actually welcome an attempt to govern alone. Instead, the LibDems are put to the sword and ask whether they wish to be in or outside of the tent. Then, there is also the issue of how electable Ed Milliband is. At this precise moment in time I imagine every Labour supporter is bemoaning that his brother David did not win the Leadership contest: he has the proven chops on the diplomatic stage. Something which is sorely needed now.
Third, Cameron finds a path to renegotiate. The door is left ajar here: everyone appreciates that a Euro solution would be stronger with everyone in the boat; Germany-France would probably welcome a sharing of the load; the long tail would welcome not being quite so overwhelmed by France and Germany. To every player there is a story with which the UK can re-enter. If the lack of preparation was the principle cause for the need to veto, then use this window now while the markets are clearly still jittery to find the face saving solution that allows Cameron to claim victory while not taking it away from others (notably Merkel and Sarkozy). Naive? Possibly, but isn't that what negotiation and politics is about - finding a path to keep all stakeholders happy. Nobody is that happy at the moment, not even Sarkozy one suspects when the adrenalin of having got one over on Cameron begins to fade. I'd note also that this has to be the only path open to Clegg as a constructive way forward: I think the LibDems as a political force is an issue in the balance at the moment.
(iii) This was not intended
The lack of Government spin, the lack of communication, the lack of a coherent plan of what next, gives you all the indication you need that this was not intended despite Cameron's statements that he would take this path if he had to. Bluster in advance to satisfy the skeptics then provided a trapdoor of his own making at the negotiating table. I imagine that there has been a lot of handwringing going on as the core team tries to work out what next. I actually take as a good sign Nick Clegg not being present for the session yesterday; it lets me imagine that this was a deliberate and agreed act in order to provide room to leverage the open doors I speak about above. Or perhaps that is wishful thinking.
(iv) How hard you have to work to understand the topic
This is a complicated event to understand both politically and economically but the newspapers try too hard sometimes, and too early, to put their spin on things before it is clear what is or has actually happened. The stock of the Financial Times and The Economist has risen for me through this process as both papers appear to have had real insight into the discussions; I have found the New York Times independent view to be useful as well as its use of guest editorials; The Guardian has had very good coverage, though you need to decode everything for its pre-determined view against Cameron; The Telegraph falls marginally behind in terms of completeness compared to The Guardian and has had less bias perhaps due to the uncertainty. The majority of my reading has been online, so I cannot comment on The Times coverage (due to the paywall) and the only print copy I saw was The Daily Mail which was as unsubtle as ever in telling me what I ought to be thinking.
The BBC has been a confusion of coverage, covering the event like it does its football with a healthy smattering of what people around the country think via twitter, email and text. It really should focus on promoting the thoughts and opinions of its own well connected correspondents. Tweets from Joe Public as entertaining byplay during football commentary has its place; in the midst of the largest political moment in recent history it strikes an odd tone.
The Bagehot Diaries in The Economist from where you can also visit more extensive coverage.
Any number of articles from the FT such as this one which exposed the lack of preparation or this guest editorial offering a view from France.
The New York Times is following events here and its guest editorials/commentaries are insightful, but beware they all come with a strong view e.g. here.
The Guardian's coverage is also complete and can be found here.