European officials and diplomats were left scratching their heads after British PM David Cameron’s big speech, expressing confusion about how and when he expects to overhaul Britain’s ties to the EU.
He promised voters an in/out referendum on British membership if he is re-elected in 2015, saying the referendum would take place by the end of 2017, once Britain has re-negotiated its relationship with the EU.
It may have been what eurosceptics in his Conservative party, and the wider British public, wanted to hear, but it is anything but a straightforward process, and not one that Britain can decide alone. It needs allies if it wants to distance itself.
Leaving aside the fact that Cameron, down in opinion polls, would need to be re-elected first, the critical question is whether the 26 other EU member states — or 27 once Croatia joins later this year — would want to renegotiate the EU treaty, the framework that binds them together.
Fundamental changes to the treaty of the kind that Cameron is hinting at would require support for what is known in EU parlance as a European Convention.
Under EU rules, a simple majority of member states have to be in favour of calling a Convention, so at least 15 countries once Croatia has joined. That is the first hurdle and one Britain might not manage to clear.
If there is a majority in favour of a convention, the EU would begin a long and complex legal and political process involving all member states, the European Parliament, national parliaments and the European Commission.
The convention’s recommendations for treaty changes, which have to be unanimous, would then be put to what is known as an intergovernmental conference involving all member states. Any alterations or renegotiations to the treaty would require unanimity.
Cameron would have to convince allies that they have something to gain from reopening the treaty, and then convince them that it is in their interests for UK to have looser ties to the EU.