Britain and the EU: Defining Change

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By Frederick Brock

The Context

A recent poll conducted by ORB International put British support for withdrawing from European Union membership at 52%.[1] This figure fluctuates from month to month, with June-September showing a consistent lead for staying in and current support for remaining in the EU at 48%. With such a close race to the finish and a referendum on membership around the corner in 2017, it seems remarkable that the continental press is paying so little attention to what’s going on. The political ramifications of ‘Brexit’ – aka British exit – could be more far reaching than even the migration crisis in terms of its impact on Europe’s future.

So, how have we arrived at such a juncture? This article shall briefly attempt to address why the climate is ripe for secession. It will go on to consider and opine about what the British Government is hoping to get out of this, why David Cameron has been couch surfing around the Presidential residences of Europe and the chance of reform against such a complex political backdrop.

A Climate Ripe for Secession

Indications of a malaise with the EU are not restricted to the UK. The apparent inability of the EU to respond effectively to challenges, such as the Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis and the rise of populism, have damaged its credibility across the Member States.

Economic differences have laid bare divisions. Greeks have rioted on the streets of Athens as draconian cuts were imposed. Indebted southern Member States voice their anger at EU handling of the Eurozone crisis, a discourse laced with unsubtle barbs pointed at the German Leader.[2]

The refugee crisis has put unprecedented pressure on European institutions and Governments. Eastern European Member States, such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, have made their opposition to taking in refugees well known.[3] The flagship EU migrant quota program is in doubt as Slovakia takes legal action against the European Commission to avoid having to take refugees whilst Hungary builds illegal fences to keep those fleeing Syria out.[4] This has resulted in a block of 9 other countries led by Germany and Sweden breaking away to pursue a separate initiative: accepting a larger proportion of asylum seeker claims than other states.

The Schengen system has come under pressure as a result of the migration crisis. Populist political parties have railed against it and the terrorist attacks in Paris have put it under increased scrutiny. Adding to this the impromptu borders springing up around Europe, the Schengen agreements future seems to be in doubt.

The EU political construct is at its most pressed and, potentially, fragile in decades. British clamours for treaty renegotiation could not come at a worse time.

Renegotiation and Referendum

David Cameron is going to attempt to re-negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. At the conclusion of the negotiations, ongoing at the moment, he will be left to assess how far his demands have been met. After delivering the results of the renegotiations to the UK public, they will use his successes, or failures, to inform the way they vote come a referendum on EU membership.

The last few months have seen David Cameron travelling Europe in order to plead with, flatter and bully other leaders into considering his reforms. Despite coming at a time when EU leaders have greater concerns on their plates, his arguments for change cannot be left unanswered. Sweden has voiced concern already about the prospect of a British exit. Their worry is that a ‘Brexit’ could potentially prompt an imbalance of political weight between the Northern Member States and other groupings within the EU, leading to a loss of influence for Britain’s traditional allies.[5] German and French political leaders are cajoling the British to remain part of the EU project.[6] More locally, the British public are becoming subject to an increasingly vitriolic campaign over the risks and benefits of leaving the EU or remaining a member. Financial institutions, the CBI (an influential business group) and ratings agencies like Standard and Poor’s have all warned of the dangers of leaving.[7]

So, with so much at stake nationally and internationally, economically and politically, and even personally, what is the Prime Minister hoping to achieve?[8]

David Cameron’s Proposals for Reform

To address each proposal in turn, briefly:

Proposal 1: Protection of the single market for Britain and other non-euro countries

There are concerns that the UK may become a second-tier nation within the EU, excluded from discussions and holding less influence due it not being a member of the Eurozone. David Cameron is seeking legal provisions to prevent this from happening.

Proposal 2: Boosting competitiveness by setting a target for the reduction of the “burden” of red tape

Simply put, repealing regulations and directives that deter business. The UK Government is frequently opposed to motions for more regulation that are passed by the European Parliament and Commission. UK Government opposition to tighter rules concerning air pollution is one such example.

Proposal 3: Exempting Britain from “ever-closer union” and bolstering national parliaments

The third proposal is a bizarre one. It is bizarre because the notion of ‘ever- closer union’ is not legally binding anyway. It is something that is stated in the Treaty of Rome but not a legal requirement, so the UK does not have to practically do anything in support of its implementation. This has more to do with placating anti-EU members of the ruling party and the public, than with actual substantive impact.

Proposal 4: Restricting EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits such as tax credits

This is the most contentious proposal. Its aim is essentially to allow direct discrimination between different groups of EU citizens. For example, a Polish worker could be working alongside a British worker, doing the same job but receiving less money as they would be excluded from access to welfare.

Chances of success

Opinions on this differ depending on who you consult. There is an overriding sense that the first two proposals are perfectly achievable, as they are something the UK could push for through its representatives in the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council anyway. The penultimate proposal is more contentious, but a symbolic ‘opt out’ statement is possible. In the context of the first three reforms it has been argued that ‘David Cameron will achieve his reforms – because they will alter nothing.’[9]

However, the last proposal is less likely to be successful. The principle of non-discrimination between EU citizens is fundamental to the EU, therefore it is likely that the Prime Minister will come away either empty-handed or with a symbolic concession.

With such little change sought, the critics remain divided: an unsubstantial political manoeuvre or a genuinely ambitious plan for reform of the EU? Nobody seems to know for sure. David Cameron himself seems unsure as to what he wants; unwilling to force his ministers into voting in favour of remaining in or leaving, and unwilling to commit himself either way.

Brexit represents a real and present danger to the political balance of the EU. The billions spent on keeping Greece in pale in comparison to the impact the exit of the world’s 5th largest economy could have on the EU. Uncertainty abounds and from that discordant political voices are in turn unbound. As the hyperbole on each side intensifies, 2016 is beginning to shape up to be a seminal year for our European Union.

 

[1] <http://www.opinion.co.uk/whoweare.php> Accessed December 10th 2015

[2] <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/15/europeans-blackmailed-betrayed-angry-eurozone-germany> Accessed December 10th 2015

[3] <http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-france-shooting-poland-refugees-idUKKBN0TC1Q820151123&gt; Accessed December 10th 2015

[4] <http://www.euractiv.com/sections/justice-home-affairs/slovakia-pushes-ahead-legal-action-over-eu-migrant-quotas-318139> Accessed December 10th 2015

[5] <http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexitvote/2015/11/13/european-views-on-the-uks-renegotiation-vi-czech-republic-hungary-sweden-and-lithuania/&gt; Accessed 10th December 2015

[6] <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3c7c5574-965b-11e4-922f-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3x9MjsC7z> Accessed 10th December 2015

[7] <https://uk.newshub.org/eu-referendum-2017-standard-and-poor-s-warn-britain-could-lose-triple-rating-brexit-17213120.html#> Accessed 10th December 2015

[8] <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/11984815/What-are-David-Camerons-four-EU-reform-demands-and-do-they-matter.html&gt; Accessed 10th December 2015

[9] <http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/david-cameron-will-secure-all-of-his-eu-reforms-because-they-will-alter-nothing/> Accessed 10th December 2015

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/49707497@N06/12974587273″>PM at European Council</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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