Fear and loathing will power drama of EU debate

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David Cameron’s performance will be key to the result of the referendum campaign

The whole world’s a stage, and the backdrop to David Cameron’s biggest performance so far will be Brussels. If the prime minister fumbles his lines, the curtain call could come early.

We are approaching a moment of high theatre within the long running drama of the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union.

Mr Cameron has chosen to make much of this moment, a long-trailed denouement in the European soap opera.

One can almost hear the thud of the EastEnders theme tune behind his words.

He has suggested, time and time again, the UK should stay in the EU – but only if the relationship changes.

Many of those who are deeply political and deeply concerned are playing along with him, pretending to be agog with anticipation.

In reality, most of them have made up their minds.

There are those for whom virtually no achievable change would be big enough.

There are those who would vote to stay “in” even if Mr Cameron were rudely sent home with a flea in his ear.

Cries of ecstasy or despair will heighten the drama of the moment and reinforce their case, but distinguishing the genuine from the predestined will be important.

So will the academic and media judgements on how far the hard-won changes achieve their stated objective.

For, I suspect, many voters could be swayed at this moment.

Most people are not particularly gripped by this subject.

Only dimly aware of the looming, currently dateless, referendum, the next few weeks may mark their first serious engagement with a momentous choice.

Key paper

This is the plan. The President of the Council, Donald Tusk, will soon set out how he hopes to solve Mr Cameron’s problem.

He will do it in a paper to all the EU’s leaders, which they are expecting on Monday, 1 February.

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Donald Tusk will set out the EU position on negotiations

It won’t just be about migration, but that is still the hard problem.

It will contain various options to meet Mr Cameron’s desire to curb European migration in to the UK.

It will include variants of his idea of limiting in-work benefit for those who have worked in the UK for less than four years.

Key objectives

At the outset, David Cameron framed his ambition as delivering a “renegotiation for fundamental change”, saying the UK’s “best future lay within a reformed EU”.

Last November, he formally set out his demands in a letter to Mr Tusk, saying four objectives lay at the heart of the UK’s renegotiations:

  • protecting the single market for non-euro countries
  • boosting competitiveness with a target for cutting the “burden” of red tape
  • exempting Britain from “ever-closer union”, and bolstering national parliaments
  • restricting EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits such as tax credits

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What Britain wants from Europe

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This could mean withdrawing those benefits to British workers, and perhaps compensating them by other means.

Also on the table is likely to be a newly energised version of the “emergency brake” – the right to stem EU migration if a country is, by certain criteria, overwhelmed.

I am told the the brake could come into operation before the big EU summit on 19 February. We set this out in detail on The World This Weekend.

Then, there is the idea of redefining what exactly is meant by “workers”, to limit the benefit paid.

It is entirely possible there will be a previously unimagined rabbit lurking at the bottom of Mr Tusk’s hat that will be produced with a grand flourish.

Cameron’s response

So, there will be a lot of theatre in the next few weeks.

It could be in Mr Cameron’s interest to hold up his hand operatically and declare, basso-profundo: “No, no, no!”.

This would speak of firm resolve and make any eventual deal look that much better.

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Migrants continue to seek refuge in Europe

But that is a gamble. If not choreographed with a nod and a wink, which is difficult and dangerous, it risks alienating other leaders.

And, more simply, it pushes a referendum into the autumn, after a summer season of high of migration across the Med.

That has little or nothing directly to do with the UK’s membership of the EU, but it is seen as a very bad background by “in” campaigners.

So it is more likely Mr Cameron will find the deal on offer in February is the one he wants.

He may put on his stern face, but allow a shadow of delight to cross it.

He will probably attempt to put the emphasis on other details of the deal but knows what he gets on migration will come under the most sustained scrutiny.

He will then fire the starting gun, setting an actual date.

Looking for a big beast

We will have more high drama – which members of the government will go along with the plan, and who will reject it, and how politely.

The “outs” desperately want a big beast, Boris Johnson, or Theresa May, or Michael Gove, to join Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villers and Chris Grayling, who are expected to shun the prime minister’s deal.

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Boris Johnson or Theresa May would be a coup for the out campaign

Persuading any of the latter trio to stay on side would be a real bonus for Mr Cameron.

But, then, it is down to the serious arguments, which, of course, have already begun.

It is one of the delights of elections that it is impossible to predict how they unfold.

There is often a pivotal moment, which either captures the mood or swings it.

Who predicted the impact of the possibility of a Labour-SNP pact on last year’s vote? Or the cross-party pledge in the Scottish referendum?

But, as far as we can peer into the future, it will really be about fear and loathing, while both sides suggest hope and glory, if not God, are on their side.

The economy will be central. People will want to know if their future would be better or worse, inside or outside.

Figures will be bandied, bended, thrashed about and tortured into service. Anyone who claims to know for certain should be suspect.

The “in” side will hammer home their view that any move from the status quo is a risk at a risky time.

“Out” will suggest this shows little faith in the UK’s ability and history, and that far from fear, leaving would unshackle a new dynamism.

Allied to this is the argument of what UK out of the EU would look like – again fear will play a big factor.

Security argument

The “ins” are suggesting something beyond the economic is at play, bundling it with a general argument about security.

They warn that, in a dangerous world of Russian expansionism and jihadist mayhem, the UK can’t afford to cut itself off from one important alliance.

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There is unease about the possibility of Russian expansionism following unrest in Ukraine

“Out” will say that has nothing to do with EU, everything to do with Nato.

While many instinctual supporters of “out” loathe the European Union and may be keen to line up and innumerate its faults and failings, some see the dangers of a negative campaign.

Two competing “Project Fears” would create a rather gloomy mood for what will already be a nerve-wracking choice for many, which is why Mr Cameron’s deal may set the tone.

Migration is only one subject, but it is one that concerns many voters.

Whether Mr Cameron appears like a statesman of substance or the emperor swishing his new cloak may define whether fear and loathing triumphs.

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