European Affairs

Britain Confronts European Policy     Print Email
By Geoffrey Paul, Independent London Journalist

geoffpaulphotoLess than 24 hours after his Conservative Party won an unexpected electoral victory, in which Britain's role in Europe played virtually no part, David Cameron found himself confronted on every side with questions about his European policy.

Not one of the major parties put Britain's membership of the European Union anywhere near the centre of its election campaign. It was scarcely discussed. The one party that made a British exit from the EU central to its appeal to voters, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), won only one seat in the new 650-member parliament (despite gaining nearly 14 per cent of the vote, a peculiarity of Britain's voting system).

But the minute the vote was in and Cameron, to his surprise and the blushes of the pollsters, found himself with an overall parliamentary majority of 12, the question was out there in front of the Prime Minister and the nation: what now with his pre-election pledge of a referendum before the end of 2017 on whether Britain should stay in or come out of the European Union?

Mr. Cameron had offered the referendum in a response to a widespread perception, whipped up by euroskeptics in his party and reports of potential parliamentary gains for UKIP, that the British public felt itself under siege by migrants from, mainly eastern, Europe. The newspapers, especially the popular papers, regularly splashed stories of European migrant workers, freely admitted under EU legislation which allows free passage and equal rights as between one EU country and another. The thrust of these reports was that migrants were skimming off the cream of British unemployment and social benefits, were being comfortably housed and their children educated at the expense of the state and were an increasing burden on the free-to-all but heavily strained National Health Service.

A lot of this was exaggerated, but even Downing Street was beginning to chafe at the endless flow of rules and regulations issuing from the European Parliament in Brussels and affecting every aspect of the lives of the citizens of member states. London has always resisted attempts to create a European superstructure which would impose a European monetary and political policy on its constituents. The apparent unease of large sections of Britain's citizens, and not least the twitchiness of some of his own party members, left the pro-European Cameron with little choice but to allow his country the choice of staying in the EU or leaving it (or Brexit, which is now a common shorthand for a British exit).
Cameron's own choice and that of his leading ministers is to stay within the European Union but to negotiate terms and conditions which will convince the British public that a close relationship with Europe is essential to its economic well-being. Within four days of his election victory, one of the Prime Minister's senior associates was in Brussels informally putting Cameron's major conditions to European leaders. These were known to include:

The right for Britain to opt out of any effort to forge a single European identity with the shared obligations that would imply;
The right of any member-state of the Union to veto for its own citizens legislation passed by the parliament in Brussels or handed down by the European Commission;
Acceptance by Brussels that changes in single market terms and conditions cannot be imposed on a non-member of the eurozone;
Restrictions, to be agreed, on the automatic right of people moving from one EU country to another to enjoy the unemployment and social benefits of that country.

Cameron had intended to demand the right to restrict the free flow of European Union citizens from one member country to another but soundings in Berlin and Paris and vocal warnings from East European politicians made clear that this was a red line none of them was prepared to cross. What has further compounded this complex problem is how Europe is to tackle the challenge of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East pouring into Greece and Italy whose governments have made clear they cannot cope alone with this desperate and seemingly endless traffic . According to a report in The Times of London, the European Commission is planning to allocate the refugees to member countries according to a formula based on unemployment figures and GDP with Britain expected to accept 30,000 (in addition to the many thousands who already arrive annually from elsewhere than Europe seeking a home). London immediately made clear it would have none of this and would refuse any imposed quotas, relying on an opt-out deal negotiated in 1997 covering asylum and home affairs.

Such an opt-out will not promote Cameron's case that EU leaders must demonstrate more flexibility in their terms for Union membership. With an almost equal three-way split between those Britons who want to stay in or leave Europe and those who are “don't knows,” London and Brussels must weigh heavily the possible negative consequences of a British referendum. Pro-European supporters are urging Cameron to use his new domestic strength to strike while the iron is hot: to wrestle the best terms from a Europe which does not want to lose the UK and then to hard sell these terms to the British public as soon as possible, certainly no later than 2016 and well before the Germans and the French have their own national elections in 2017.

The forecast for summer in Europe must be: Long and hot.