If coverage of David Cameron’s dramatic, pivotal speech on Britain and the European Union seems grudging, that may in part reflect the extraordinary sequences of mishaps and misadventures that preceded it. Early plans to hold the speech on Jan. 22 were hastily junked after French and German officials protested to Downing Street that this would hijack attention from celebrations in Berlin of 50 years of the Franco-German friendship treaty. Nor was Jan. 21 a workable alternative, with the eyes of the world more likely to be trained on Washington than Westminster. Britain’s Prime Minister had already agreed to speak on Jan. 24 at the World Economic Forum. Staged at a gilded ski resort in Switzerland, one of few remaining European nations not already in the E.U. or seeking to join, the WEF would hardly have provided an appropriate platform for a speech purporting to make the case for staying in the union to austerity-weary voters in the U.K. and other member countries.
These calculations left Downing Street spin doctors scrambling to bring the date forward to Jan. 18, only to postpone with equal haste after militants stormed a desert gas facility in Algeria, forcing Cameron to convene the government’s crisis committee. Notice of the change came too late to stop some of the bigger beasts of the British media jungle traveling all the way to the intended speech venue, in Amsterdam, at the perfect time to find themselves caught up in #snowmaggedon as they attempted to return home. By the time Cameron finally got to deliver his speech, at 8 a.m. on Jan. 23 in London, much of its meat had been prereleased, leaked, picked over and chewed. “It’s a shambles,” grumbled one of Britain’s better-known TV inquisitors as he slumped into his seat. A miasma of grumpiness hung above the assembled press, as pungent in its way as the stink that had unexpectedly enveloped parts of Southern England just a day earlier, after foul fumes from an accidental leak at a chemical plant in France wafted across the Channel.
(VIDEO: TIME Interviews David Cameron)
Cameron’s words caused noses to wrinkle in disgust across a far wider swath of Europe. That’s because, despite grudging reviews and a sense of anticlimax, this was a potent piece of work that, by promising a referendum on Britain staying in the E.U. or leaving it, quite possibly initiated divorce proceedings. Like many Dear John letters, the speech concealed its flinty heart under layers of tribute and nostalgic affection. Cameron spoke of the union’s genesis as a project of peace. “Healing [the] wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union,” he said. He acknowledged that membership enhanced British influence, not least in Washington:
It matters to our ability to get things done in the world. It matters to the United States and other friends around the world.
And he declared his deep belief in Britain’s European future, pledging to campaign for staying in the E.U. “with all my heart and all my soul.”
His audience, at home and in European capitals, quickly recognized this was no lovey-dovey replighting of troth. Cameron made his support for British membership contingent on a renegotiation of the terms of the membership and the nature of the E.U. itself. As the 17 nations of the euro zone move into a closer embrace in order to preserve the single currency, he is angling for a far more open relationship, a trade federation rather than an intimate union. His proposition provoked mixed emotions among his European partners — exasperation, irritation, a soupçon of pique, ein bisschen angst.
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The referendum would not take place until after Britain’s 2015 elections. “Cameron risks to paralyze the European Union for years,” e-mailed Gunther Krichbaum, a prominent German politician who chairs his national Parliament’s committee for European affairs. Speaking to TIME in Berlin ahead of the speech, but when much of its core message had already been trailed, Krichbaum’s Christian Democrat colleague Ursula von der Leyen, who serves in the German Cabinet as Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, issued a more poignant warning:
It would be a terrible loss for Europe if Britain were to leave and I think for Britain too. The bonds between European countries are much more profound than most people are aware of. We share a common European history that hasn’t always been a wonderful or lucky or happy history, but we share the same historic experiences. Europe is a result of having learned from war, division and disaster, but also human rights, dignity and reconciliation. All these things are the European Union and that is very precious in a globalized world.
If Britain’s partners are worried by the specter of an in-out referendum, they are not surprised by it. The U.K. maintains a tradition of demanding E.U. exceptions and opt-outs. Margaret Thatcher famously wielded her influence and her handbag in 1984 to win Britain a hefty rebate from its annual contribution to the budget. Cameron aims to emulate her handbaggery to wrest visible concessions from the E.U.
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What his speech didn’t make at all clear is exactly what those concessions might be. Last year his government launched what it calls a “review of the balance of competences,” an audit that Cameron characterized as being designed “to give us an informed and objective analysis of where the E.U. helps and where it hampers.” The review might, in other words, provide the basis of the shopping list of renegotiation demands that Cameron will presumably set out as the precondition for his continued support for staying in the E.U. The mood music in continental Europe suggests there’s little chance of achieving meaningful concessions without a major fight and even then, probably not. For now, Cameron is sidestepping the question of whether failure to secure these concessions would see him asking British voters to use the referendum to dump the E.U.
The referendum may not be held at all if Cameron fails to win an overall majority at the next election. His Liberal-Democrat coalition partners oppose a referendum; so does the Labour opposition. Cameron’s sudden conversion to an in-out referendum — an idea he explicitly rejected in the recent past — would appear to owe as much to electioneering as to conviction politics. A noisy contingent of Conservative MPs are euroskeptic; many Tories worry that the unambiguously euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party will continue stealing Tory votes.
So Britain, in practice, faces the possibility of not one referendum but two: the 2015 elections and then a plebiscite on the E.U. And with many Britons blaming the E.U. for the economic turmoil depressing growth and killing off jobs, the single life may well look more attractive to them than the single market.