Guy Verhofstadt has asked British Prime Minister David Cameron to attend a plenary meeting in the European Parliament to clarify and discuss with MEPs the aims of his much discussed EU renegotiation strategy. This is a bold move from the leader of the ALDE bloc who is no stranger to the spotlight. His passionate speech in the European Parliament during the most recent Greek crisis received plaudits from both supporters and critics.
Whilst this invitation could be seen as confrontational, upon further reflection it need not be. Instead, Mr Cameron should view this as an opportunity to change the narrative from that of the petulant United Kingdom always complaining, to that of a Member State seeking to improve the EU and make it more competitive, democratic and suitable for the 21st century. By doing this, the Prime Minister will win new friends which he so desperately needs if he is to secure the changes he wants for the UK.
What Mr Cameron actually wants to gain from his renegotiation is still unknown. Vague statements about 'reform', 'return of sovereignty' and a 'more streamlined EU' are presented to the British people, and we are still none the wiser what exactly we will be voting on.
Mr Cameron should travel to the European Parliament and discuss his referendum strategy for two reasons:
1. He has bemoaned the 'democratic deficit' afflicting the European Parliament. Verhoftstadt's offer to debate in the European Parliament offers a perfect opportunity for the 'democratic deficit' to be tackled.
2. Brexit is a European issue. Whatever the outcome, it will have a profound effect on the European Union. Therefore, it is an issue that must be debated in the European Parliament where the people of the Union are represented.
Mr Cameron has criticised the European Union for suffering from a democratic deficit. He believes the European Parliament is unrepresentative, has a weak mandate and is not accountable. Well surely a debate in the European Parliament is the perfect way of tackling this issue, isn't it? It would be the height of hypocrisy to bemoan an institution, yet refuse a perfectly reasonable offer to increase the electorate's awareness of what the European Parliament is and what it does, thus helping close the 'democratic deficit'.
Since the European Parliament's inception, it has steadily won more powers. To give an example, it can now accept or reject the European Union's budget. Moreover since the introduction of the co-decision procedure the European Parliament is equal to the European Council of Ministers and the European Commission in the legislative procedure. In short, the European Parliament is not only a fully fledged democratic institution within the EU polity but one that has power. Mr Cameron should respect that and accept the offer to debate in the chamber where the representatives of the European Union's citizens sit.
This leads onto the second reason why the Prime Minister should accept Verhofstadt's offer. Brexit is a European issue. If the UK were to leave the European Union, the consequences for the EU would be damaging. The EU would lose one of the strongest advocates for the completion of the single market. At a time where economic growth is so desperately needed, the loss of the UK could be a fatal blow to the vitality and even long term success of the market.
Not only that, the departure of the UK would weaken the EU's role as a global actor. The UK is one of the staunchest supporters of continuing sanctions against a resurgent, revanchist and irrational Russia. Without the UK at the table, EU member states who are more 'sympathetic' to Russia may question the need for the sanctions. At a time when, according to NATO reports, Russia is sending soldiers into the Donbass region, the EU must remain firm in its condemnation of Russian action. If the UK were to leave the Union, this may not be the case. Such a grave error would further strain the already weakened European security architecture.
Do not just take my word for it. The Finnish Finance Minister recently said that: 'Our take is very simple, without the United Kingdom, there is no European Union...It would be a travesty to both, for Europe and the UK, were the UK to leave the union.'
It is clear then that if the UK were to leave the EU there would be significant negative strategic and economic consequences. It is because of this that David Cameron must secure the vote for the UK to remain in the EU. To ensure this he should clarify his renegotiation strategy to the European Parliament in the hope of finding allies throughout the Union. Despite these reasons that should compel the Prime Minister to accept Verhofstadt's offer, it is unlikely that he will. Mr Cameron is under immense pressure from UKIP and from within his own party. The emergence of UKIP as the third largest political force in the UK has forced Mr Cameron to keep his renegotiation strategy very secretive. If he were to reveal what he wanted, it is certain that Nigel Farage would demand changes that he knows would be impossible to secure. Similarly, the Prime Minister is aware of the threat within his own ranks. His euro-sceptic backbenchers have formed the 'Conservatives for Britain' group, and a large section of this group will vote to leave the EU whatever changes Mr Cameron 'wins' from Brussels. These MPs, like UKIP, will demand changes that they know are impossible to achieve. The Prime Minister cannot reason with these forces.
With this domestic opposition Mr Cameron should use the opportunity to speak in the Parliament to find supporters for his 'reforms'. For Mr Cameron to secure changes that will ensure the UK votes to remain in the EU it is imperative that he has allies. Over the last five years he has let many traditional European alliances wane. He must repair these alliances now.
Mr Cameron, the Eurostar to Brussels beckons. Take it.