Imagine you're a member of the public mulling over EU issues and the future of the UK/EU relationship. Your heart must sink at the prospect of assorted former Ambassadors hooting mournfully at each other on these questions.
Over at Telegraph Blogs is my latest piece on this subject, pointing to a dilemma:
The Prime Minister’s speech will be closely scrutinised in EU capitals to see how far we might be ready to go to catalyse a real crisis to compel a redefinition of powers away from Brussels back to London.
Without a clear (enough) signal of UK willingness to force the issue, they’ll conclude that they need do no serious thinking about the way the EU should evolve to suit those few countries not in the Eurozone or expecting eventually to join it.
However, if the Prime Minister does make convincingly clear that for solid operational reasons it is in the EU’s own interests that these institutional issues be faced (and better sooner than later), the ensuing Euro-sulking directed against us precisely because we are right may make it all the harder to win any changes on a meaningful scale.
Meanwhile at the Guardian is Sir Nigel Sheinwald, probably the biggest and fiercest ex-FCO shark in the sea, as (a) he served as Ambassador to the EU and to Washington, and (b) he is quite recently retired so he knows the issues fresh and from the highest level (unlike me). Right from the start of his career Nigel had a simple policy for advancing to the top: to declare that he was going straight to the top, then watching as everyone else jumped out of the way in panic. It worked a treat.
Thus his views on the UK/EU:
"We have sold investment in the UK on the basis that the UK is the best gateway into the single market. That is the way we have presented ourselves. American firms and firms from the far east have based themselves in London for that reason. That has been such a success over the past decade or 15 years."
Sheinwald cautioned Cameron against tabling demands for the repatriation of UK powers, saying it is too early to know what the rest of the EU might seek in negotiations after the European elections in 2014.
"To take the position some take here in the UK, which is our European partners are going to be asking for the moon, and therefore it won't be surprising if we put in a very large demand on the table – that seems to be at the very least premature. In any event other members of the EU would regard any really significant proposals by us to renegotiate as opportunistic, given the main areas they are going to be examining are ones they would say are necessary for the euro to survive and prosper.
"These issues are existential for them, and they would argue of a different character to the sort of proposals we might be putting forward."
True. This is my point too: unless we are really difficult we'll simply be ignored, but if we are difficult enough not to be ignored we'll be strongly opposed by other partners.
The proposition (nay fact) that the UK is a gateway for foreign investment into the EU from the USA and Asia is a powerful force for sticking with the EU come what may, and probably the only one Ministers really take seriously. Would we lose much or most of that advantage if we were somehow to leave the EU? The answer to that is that we just don't know, but it seems risky: can we be sure that the benefits of being separate would outweigh or at least significantly offset the risks of huge slabs of foreign investment heaving a sigh and moving over to the Europeasn mainland?
On it wearily goes. Nigel Sheinwald may be massively invested in the European project, but he knows his stuff. Above all, he knows that it's all about timing: moments come when things get renegotiated, and showing your hand too far in advance is simply a negotiating mistake. The problem for us with waiting and seeing what the EU elites will come up with down the road is that back here in the UK the Conservative position is being eroded by UKIP at a fast pace. David Cameron has to come up with something that sounds meaningful and maybe even is quite meaningful, but nonetheless gives him room for manoeuvre with EU partners.
The strong point he has with them (as it happens to be true) is that the EU as currently constituted is a mess and needs a lot of hard-love reform. the underlying dynamics are grim, whatever the current uneasy calm may be saying to us. A new paradigm involving a systematic arrangment for 'inner' Eurozone countries and the rest of Europe (including Ukraine and Turkey) makes a lot of sense.
Alas there is no prospect of thinking about doing that without a really ghastly crisis, and if there is a crisis too many Eurocrats will be desperate to cling on to the status quo.
So, in short, it's a total mess. And almost certain to stay that way, whatever the Prime Minister says later this week.