Cameron's Big EU Speech: How can this End Well?

David Cameron has a lot to live up to. The expectations for his speech on Britain's future in the European Union, to be given on Friday in the Netherlands, have been built to epic proportions, and not just by the media. The prime minister himself has been touring radio and television studios giving tantalising – or tediously repetitive, depending on your point of view – previews of what he might say when the big moment finally arrives. Doing so may yet prove to be of the greatest mistakes of his time in office.

Confusion over the date and location that the speech will take place have hardly inspired confidence in the skill of Cameron's strategists. The slow burn build-up has given plenty of opportunity for both opponents and allies of the prime minister – including the United States, fellow EU countries, business leaders and former diplomats – to warn of what they see as the dangers of putting Britain's EU membership at risk. In December Cameron told journalists that he was taking a "tantric" approach to EU policy-making – that it would be "even better when it does eventually come". The problem is that, whatever he says on Friday, it is hard to see who other than his most loyal supporters he will satisfy.

Cameron insists he wants Britain to stay in the EU, albeit with changes to make the relationship "more comfortable". As he likes to call it, a "fresh settlement", a deal to be done with other EU countries at the same time as the eurozone enacts the reforms it needs in the wake of the economic crisis. He talks of repatriating some powers from Brussels and then seeking the "consent" of the British people, possibly in a 2018 referendum according to some press reports. That will not be enough to win over supporters of the UK Independence Party, the popularity of which is growing largely at the expense of Cameron's Conservatives. To do so would require an in/out referendum to be held as soon as possible – not a pledge to hold one at some point after negotiations with the EU are complete. The same goes for some members of the prime minister's own party.

Nor is it likely win over Eurosceptic Conservatives. The Fresh Start group – a selection of Tories of the sort that might prefer Boris Johnson as party leader – today proposed five "significant revisions" to the EU treaties in a Manifesto for Change. They want all social and employment law repatriated, an opt-out from policing and criminal justice measures, a so-called "emergency brake" on new legislation affecting financial services, a legal safeguard for the single market, and an end to the European Parliament's monthly trip from Brussels to Strasbourg. We can all agree with the last one. But that is not all: they have also called for agriculture, fishing and regional policy to be returned to London and limits to the free movement of people. Even in the unlikely event of Cameron promising to deliver all of this, his chances of persuading other European leaders to go along with it are zero.

Fresh Start say that if the negotiations on repatriating EU social and employment law fail, an Act of Parliament could be used to disapply it in the United Kingdom. It "would not be a petulant act, but rather a signal that this is a red line issue for the UK", they claim. It might be seen quite differently in other EU capitals. All of this is creating a big problem for the prime minister. Even if Conservative MPs accept that they would not get everything they want from the renegotiation, they are setting their sights very high. If Cameron holds a referendum – and it is a big 'if' given that there is the small matter of a general election to be won in the meantime – how much of this repatriation will have to have taken place to persuade Tory MPs to campaign for a 'yes' vote to stay in the EU?

There is another set of people for whom Cameron's speech is certain to be a disappointment: the dwindling number of pro-Europeans in Britain who would prefer to see the country fully engaged with the EU – a group that includes, of course, many of the prime minister's coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats as well many in the business world. Let's assume the prime minister complete his negotiations, stays in power after the next election, and holds his referendum. The options will be to either stay in the EU on the new looser arrangement negotiated by Cameron, or to leave entirely. How are those in favour of a more closely integrated Europe supposed to vote? They would essentially be excluded from the debate – much as they have been dismissed by Cameron in all his rhetoric about the "beating heart of Britain" being on his side.

Every way you turn there are people ready to be infuriated, let down, or disappointed by this speech. And that is only in Britain – what about the rest of Europe? If Angela Merkel and co. finally decide that no treaty revisions are necessary to fix the eurozone, at least in the foreseeable future, then Cameron's bid for renegotiation will fall flat on its face at the outset. Yesterday in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who leads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, said that giving concessions to Britain would effectively lead to "either a Brexit or the end of the single market and of the EU". Cameron professes to want neither. But if he tones the speech down to ease the fears of fellow EU leaders, it would go down very badly with the people whose support he is trying to win at home.

How can he possibly win?