David Cameron has just taken a colossal gamble with the future of his and my country and of Europe.

In a speech delivered at the Bloomberg offices in London on 23 January – symbolic of the Tories’ true heartland, the City – he committed his party to this:

The next Conservative manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next parliament.

It will be a relationship with the single market at its heart.

And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms, or come out altogether …..

[At the end]:

And when the referendum comes let me say now that if we can negotiate such an arrangement, I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul.

Commentators are talking about the referendum in 2017, but that date is not in the speech. It would be surprising if it were that soon.

Cameron has been under immense pressure from his party to hold a referendum on Europe. The “let’s negotiate first” is thus a clever triangulation that may allow him to keep Britain in the EU. Perhaps too clever. He may fail and lead Britain out of the EU; or perhaps just England and Wales, if the gambit drives the Scots to ditch the Union in their own referendum.

What, you ask, are Cameron’s demands? Unbelievably vague. When Maggie Thatcher went for Brussels with her handbag, her demands for a budget rebate were unwelcome but perfectly clear and hence negotiable. Cameron’s are a bag of half-articulated grievances, not a negotiating position at all. You can’t negotiate with a blancmange.

Still. let’s try and guess what what Cameron’s “five principles” might translate to actual demands, and what chance he has of getting them..

1. “Competitiveness”

That means creating a leaner, less bureaucratic union, relentlessly focused on helping its member countries to compete.

Competitiveness is incoherent business school b/s , taken up by the self-promoting guardians of the “World Economic Forum” and their world leader winter camp booze-up at Davos. At best, it’s a mercantilist proxy for growth and productivity, which are real economic concepts. Cameron is worried that Europe’s share of world output will decline, as it inevitably will and should. But if he wants a fine b/s text proclaiming a laser-like focus on the fairies at the bottom of the garden, the others will no doubt be ready to give it to him. All they need to do is reheat the Lisbon declaration of 2000 in which the EU declared the vaulting ambition

to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world

with the success we all know.

The more concrete side of “competitiveness” is to gut the social and environmental programmes (see principle 3), and make European policy the servant of business as in George Bush’s America. I believe and hope this will be rejected. The political map of Europe is dominated by social and Christian democrats like Hollande and Merkel, with a only a few neo-liberals like the retiring Vaclav Klaus likely to offer any sympathy. Continental leaders will be bolstered in resistance by the unpopularity of the agenda in Britain, which will I predict become evident during the 2015 election campaign.

2. “Flexibility”. I’ll take this at the end as it’s the most important and difficult.

3. Repatriation of some powers

My third principle is that powers must be able to flow back to member states, not just away from them.

The areas mentioned are working hours, the environment, social affairs and crime.

Coupled with the “competitiveness” focus, this appears to mean abandoning all the efforts made over the last 30 years to make the European Union more than just a common market, and to some extent a common society. There is no chance of this being accepted. Of course, Cameron many water down the proposal to a few red rag items like the working hours directive, leaving the bulk untouched. He could get wider opt-outs on these shibboleths.

4. “Democratic accountability”

Cameron seems to mean by this downgrading the European Parliament:

We need to have a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments

This is just tabloid red meat. What chance is there of Westminster MPs putting in the hours and developing the expertise needed for scrutiny of the impenetrable avalanche of European legislation? They have more or less given up this function on British legislation. Gutting the EP would not mean more effective scrutiny by national parliaments, just less scrutiny.

I see negligible support for this idea in other countries, which have a more accurate impression of the EP as both a pasture for expenses-grubbing party hacks and a reasonably effective and necessary check on the executive. Their hostility will be bolstered by the probably unprintable opinion of the European Parliament itself.

5. “Fairness”

As far as I can make out, this means continued and equal access by Britain to the single market in spite of its growing opt-outs on a wider European agenda, including the Schengen immigration area and the Euro.

Formally, other European leaders would clap. Who’s against fairness? But on the substance, it’s wishful thinking and inconsistent with the variable geometry concept of principle 2. If you are out of an area of cooperation, you don’t have a say in its decisions, and will have to live with the consequences. Cameron is probably thinking about the consequences for the City of the prospective centralisation of banking regulation within the Eurozone. On many matters, it will have to follow Frankfurt’s dictates, like Switzerland; and there’s no reason why these dictates will be sensitive to British complaints.

Back to principle 2, “flexibility”.

Cameron put several issues under this heading, a practical one about variable geometry; a philosophical one about federalism; and a procedural one about decision-making. On the first:

We must not be weighed down by an insistence on a one size fits all approach which implies that all countries want the same level of integration. The fact is that they don’t and we shouldn’t assert that they do. Some will claim that this offends a central tenet of the EU’s founding philosophy. I say it merely reflects the reality of the European Union today. [Goes on to discuss Schengen, the Eurozone and military intervention.

He’s on strong ground here. Variable geometry has arrived and should be recognized as normal. I could add that cooperation on human rights is the original of the approach, as it’s run by my old employer the Council of Europe, with a wider membership including Turkey and Russia.

The problem is that it clashes with Cameron’s principle 4, democratic accountability, and his demand under principle 1 for more agile decision-making:

The EU must be able to act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the cumbersome rigidity of a bloc.

Variable geometry makes the already complicated institutional landscape even more opaque and therefore less democratic. Care to spell out, on a single sheet of paper and without using insider jargon like acquis and comitology, the decision-making process on a question like human trafficking which involves both the Schengen process (22 member and 4 non-member states) and criminal justice cooperation under the Lisbon treaty (all 27 member states)? Me neither; but the Commission and Council officials concerned, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur, have to know it inside out. Any federal system is necessarily slower and more complex than centralised government, as democracy is slower than autocracy, and variable geometry raises the price.

Second, Cameron interestingly picks a fight with the sacred texts:

The European Treaty commits the Member States to “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. This has been consistently interpreted as applying not to the peoples but rather to the states and institutions compounded by a European Court of Justice that has consistently supported greater centralisation. We understand and respect the right of others to maintain their commitment to this goal. But for Britain – and perhaps for others – it is not the objective. And we would be much more comfortable if the treaty specifically said so, freeing those who want to go further, faster, to do so, without being held back by the others.

So to those who say we have no vision for Europe, I say we have. We believe in a flexible union of free member states who share treaties and institutions and pursue together the ideal of co-operation.

He’s right that “ever closer union” is the language of mystics not of politics. What’s the desired political end state? A Napoleonic centralised empire? No, as in the US constitution it has to be a stable (in the medium if not the long term) balance of powers and competences between the Union, its member states, and their component regions. At some point aspirational integration has to yield to a constitutional settlement. When the last attempt at a European constitution died, I pointed out that staying with incremental change and opacity in fact favoured creeping centralisation. Cameron asks for a new treaty, he should be asking for a constitution.

What he’s offering instead is the old Foreign Office dream of turning the EU back into another ineffective intergovernmental organisation like the UN or the Council of Europe. Jean Monnet was dead right: you can either have gentlemanly “cooperation between states” governed by Westphalian rules of consensus, or you delegate authority to common institutions, whether individuals with executive mandates or committees with majority voting. If you want things to happen, go for the second. “Agile, unbureaucratic” decision-making entails centralised power and the disappearance of national vetoes.

The market for this sentimentally reactionary vision in the rest of Europe is marginal. Cameron might therefore get a treaty; but it would be progressive, not retrogressive.

The outlook for Cameron’s project is dim – unless you see it, as some observers do, as a tactical ploy to buy time from his backbenchers.

The obstacles are, in sequence:

1. Formulating, before the next UK general election, a negotiating platform acceptable to his party and with some chance of acceptability.

2. Negotiating a set of policy and probably treaty changes with the EU, which is now twice as large and far more complex than in Thatcher’s day, in which Britain is far less important, and its government less respected.

Bonus wrinkle: treaty changes have to be approved by every member state. If radical they are likely to be rejected by at least one, as with the European Constitution.

3. Decide whether to recommend in or out to the British people in the party manifesto on the basis of the probably meagre results, avoiding a party split.

4. Win the election. Labour are far ahead today in the polls as the British economy trudges into a triple-dip recession and Usborne burnishes his candidacy for of the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer in British history, now well ahead of Winston Churchill (1924-29). Labour have not committed themselves to the referendum; which is both clever and wise, as it leaves them free to denounce the project as the prestidigitation it is.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]