Last updated: January 20, 2013 7:56 pm

Unspoken words

Cameron was right to defer speech on Britain and Europe

David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, was right to postpone his long-awaited speech on Europe last week in the light of the tragic events in Algeria. The terrorist attack on a desert gas plant, which resulted in the deaths of several British citizens, is one of the gravest foreign policy crises he has faced since coming to power.

Nonetheless, the European issue will not go away for Mr Cameron or his party. The much-trailed speech is a landmark of his premiership. Against a rising tide of euroscepticism in the UK, and at a time of deep change in Europe itself, it will set the tone for the debate about Britain’s future relationship with its European partners. When Mr Cameron lands in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum his statement of his European policy is likely to be the focus of intense speculation. The repeated delays to the speech have created potentially damaging political uncertainty about Britain’s future in Europe. Mr Cameron has to give the lead before others are allowed to hijack the debate. It is therefore to be welcomed that he is planning to give the speech imminently.

While the full draft remains under lock and key, it is possible from the few paragraphs that have been published to get a sense of the message Mr Cameron would like to send. Instead of focusing narrowly on Britain’s interests, the prime minister appears to be setting out the broader framework of a new, more flexible kind of Europe.

There is truth in his observation that Europe faces challenges on competitiveness, public finances and public opinion. It is in this context that the question of Britain’s relationship should be debated, rather than in the frenzied heat of partisan politics. It is also welcome that Mr Cameron clearly states his desire to find a modus vivendi that will allow Britain to make a fuller contribution to the EU’s counsels, rather than always seeming to be skulking reluctantly on the sidelines.

However, we have yet to see what bones the prime minister has cast towards some of the sterner eurosceptics on his backbenches. He needs to take care not to make promises that he cannot keep. This was never going to be a speech that would provide all the answers, or satisfy all constituencies. But if the extracts are an accurate reflection of the full speech, and it sets out a sensible starting point for engagement, it will have been worth the wait.

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