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For a British prime minister there is only one thing worse than spending hours in talks with other European leaders, and that is not being invited to talk at all. It is a lesson British Prime Minister David Cameron might have learnt in December 2011, when the European People’s party (EPP) — the principal centre-right grouping in the European parliament — held its annual congress in Marseille. Cameron wasn’t actually in Marseille — which is the point. His absence deserves a special mention in any discussion of the events that have left Britain’s European Union (EU) membership hanging by a thread.

Last Tuesday Donald Tusk, the European Council President, published the draft membership renegotiation. It tells where Britain is. But Cameron’s absence all those years ago helps explain how Britain got here. We’ll come back to Tuesday’s deal, but first, Marseille. Tusk was there, as president of Poland. So were Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president at the time; Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor; Nicolas Sarkozy, the then French president; and the heads of 13 other governments. If Cameron had not withdrawn the Conservatives from the EPP, he too would have been invited.

He would have discussed proposals for rescuing the Eurozone from financial cataclysm, and understood how little appetite there was to tailor the plan to suit the City of London. He might have made progress towards a compromise. Instead, he found out the hard way, at a summit meeting in Brussels the next day. Britain’s demands for exemptions from a proposed EU-wide treaty were rebuffed. So Cameron wielded his veto.

His action did not kill the deal — euro members pressed on regardless, which is not to say they forgot or forgave the obstruction. One of the stickiest points in current talks over new membership terms comes back to the same problem: How does a non-euro country protect its trading interests in a club whose rules can be rewritten to an agenda set by single currency concerns? To satisfy wavering sceptics in the Tory party, Cameron and George Osborne (who leads on this front) want something that looks like a veto, the one thing France and Germany will not allow. Trust is as much of an issue as technicality. British negotiators say they are looking for defensive protections, but struggle to overcome the suspicion that they are engaged in hostile manoeuvres on behalf of the City.

Osborne had expected this to be one of the more straightforward elements of the renegotiation, because there is a prototype model for balancing the rights of euro and non-euro members in a 2014 banking union deal. But the detail has turned out more devilish than that. In his letter, Tusk notes the need for “a mechanism that, while giving necessary reassurances on the concerns of non-euro-area member states, cannot constitute a veto nor delay urgent decisions”. What that means in practice is “to be further discussed”.

That isn’t a deal: It’s exposed plumbing. On this issue, as with the demand for a right to withhold benefits from migrants, the prime minister is paying for years of subordinating European diplomacy to tactical party management. The commitment on benefits (now diluted from a four-year ban to a vague transition period) was not the product of meticulous calculation. In November 2014, shortly after two Tory MPs had defected to United Kingdom Independence Party, Cameron planned a speech explaining how he would reconcile EU membership with a tougher line on immigration.

Breach of fundamental EU principles

Plan A was a cap on overall numbers entering the United Kingdom. But, after receiving a courtesy copy of the speech in advance, Merkel got in touch to say she would publicly crush any such notion as an unacceptable breach of fundamental EU principles of free movement. So, as cabinet sources tell it, No 10 went on a panicky quest for a Plan B to match all the media briefing about “game-changing” measures.

The benefits gambit was plucked off the shelf, despite warnings from officials that it too was unworkable. It then ended up in the Tory election manifesto, in the unofficial category of items to be sacrificed during coalition talks with Nick Clegg in the event of a hung parliament. But Cameron won a majority and had to deliver. At no point in this process was thought given to how this would go down in eastern European countries, from where most EU migrants to Britain hail and whose governments would have a say in any final deal.

Those familiar with the negotiations say Cameron has raised his diplomatic game since then. He has certainly been on the road a lot more. He was in Brussels last weekend, and was off to Poland on Friday — all in keeping with the character of a man schooled in the art of cramming and performing well under exam conditions.

He is now scrambling to make up for failure to do his EU diplomacy coursework, dating back to 2005, when he secured the Tory leadership by promising Euro-sceptic MPs he would take them out of the EPP. When he made good that pledge in 2009, Merkel was appalled. She diagnosed it, correctly, as myopic, political immaturity. On becoming prime minister the following year, Cameron’s first European initiative was to persuade his German counterpart that he wasn’t an idiot.

With nearly six years’ governing experience, an election victory and a comparatively healthy economy to his name, Cameron’s status among his continental peers is higher now. Other EU leaders understand the domestic limitations under which the prime minister operates, and want to help. But they have their own parties and voters to manage. There will be a final deal, and it will be an imperfect compromise that fails to satisfy hardline British sceptics. But they decided to be dissatisfied long ago.

Meanwhile, Cameron appears to have grasped that Europe works better as a dialogue than as a confrontation; that defiant gestures — the banged table, the slammed door — are pantomimes for domestic consumption that waste time and squander goodwill. He has learnt, along with many other Euro-sceptic Tories, that for all the irritations and unwieldiness of EU process, the national interest is served by being in the room when the vital decisions are made. And this is the message he is now going to have to deliver to the country: When your neighbours are planning things that affect your future, it is better to be locked in talks than locked out of them.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Rafael Behr is a political columnist for the Guardian. He has been political editor of the New Statesman, chief leader writer on the Observer and a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times in Russia and eastern Europe.