Despite a recent trip by Chancellor Merkel to Downing Street, Britain’s relationship with Europe remains tense. The future of the EU could well be shaped in the next 5 months.
They say a week is a long time in politics. In that case, 23 January 2013 seems an age ago.
That was the day, two years ago tomorrow, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave his long-awaited ‘Bloomberg’ speech, outlining his plans for an ‘in-out’ referendum in 2017 and the repatriation of powers from Brussels. It was a confident speech. He was batting for Britain and Europe – a new settlement was possible and in everyone’s interest.
Tory Eurosceptics were sated (for now), Labour hushed and Brexit seemed just a fanciful threat. Cameron had delivered – or had he?
Fast forward to ‘Bloomberg 2’ – Cameron’s speech late last year on EU migration controls – and the Brexit landscape appears very different. The speech, which stopped short of calling for numerical caps on immigration but included other plans to curb EU migrants’ welfare rights, drew, perhaps surprisingly, a measured response from Brussels and Berlin.
Tensions had climaxed however in the run-up as rumours swirled that Cameron might attack a cornerstone of the European project: the free movement of people. While he has (so far) avoided a potentially fatal bust-up with Merkel and the European Commission, there is a feeling that Cameron and his Conservative party are flirting dangerously with Brexit.
Cameron’s tone on Britain’s relationship with Europe has changed remarkably since Bloomberg 1. He has oscillated from a commitment to campaign “heart and soul” to remain in the EU, to now claiming that Britain should not be willing to stay in the bloc “come what may.”
So what’s changed?
His humiliating defeat over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President and the recent EU budget debacle may have hardened his resolve. But the answer lies closer to home.
With a general election looming, domestic political pressure has come to the fore. The Conservatives are haemorrhaging support to the anti-EU UK Independence Party.
Shepherded astutely by the gregarious Nigel Farage, the party now has two seats in the House of Commons after the defection of Conservative MP Mark Reckless. Explaining his decision, Reckless said the Prime Minister’s promise of a referendum was a “trick” and that he couldn’t support a “bogus renegotiation followed by a loaded referendum.”
Bound up with the EU and a referendum is a word on most British voters’ lips: immigration.
Farage has adroitly persuaded voters that immigration is too high and leaving the EU and closing our borders is a panacea; even despite repeated analyses that tend to confirm immigration into Britain has been a net benefit for the economy. Britain’s public debate on Europe is too emotional to consider numbers. (Statistics are more or less absent from the political debate.)
Reacting to this Ukip onslaught, Cameron has tried to beat them at their own game – to “out-Ukip Ukip”, a strategy which appears doomed to fail. The more he talks about Nigel Farage and his party, the more he legitimises their often extreme policies.
By allowing Ukip to set the political agenda, the debate on Europe has suddenly become a debate about immigration, and a dangerous one at that. When Berlin got wind of Cameron’s plans to cap immigration, sources in the capital apparently said “there will be no going back.”
So what next?
While Cameron’s brinkmanship might have been tactical, to test the water on the sanctity of free movement and show he’s serious about reform, it has not endeared him to European partners increasingly concerned with what some might see as Britain’s intransigence. The same partners on whose support he depends in his push to redraw Britain’s membership.
The reality is that Cameron needs to start building and not burning bridges; he won’t otherwise be able to influence the EU reform debate or secure the changes in Brussels he deems necessary. Furthermore, it seems increasingly plausible that Cameron could endorse a no vote if he fails to reconfigure Britain’s relationship with Europe by 2017. In his own words: “I rule nothing out.”
This is, of course, all contingent on the Conservatives winning the next election outright, far from a likely outcome at the moment. If they do win, and Cameron continues with the same diplomatic approach of late, we may have moved ‘ever closer’ to that fateful portmanteau.