At the next European Council of 18-19 February, the 28 European Union leaders are expected to deliberate and possibly finalize the terms on Britain’s position in the club. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has set four conditions in order to support the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum which can definitely decide his country’s position within the EU and avoid an inopportune Brexit.
Ahead of the February council the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a generous offer to meet Cameron’s terms. Of the same positive attitude vis-a-vis the UK demands are also the other EU leaders. Nobody, the Americans included, wants to see Britain leaving the EU. The British PM prepares to hold this referendum before the summer, probably in May, and said he will not resign in the event of a ‘no’ outcome. He also clarified that he will not lead his party in the next legislative election set for 2019.
Out of the four conditions, the most important one by far is that London wants a four year freeze of in-work social security benefits for new immigrants from other EU countries. Only after having worked for four years in Britain, citizens from other EU member states should have the same rights as native Briton workers in relation to in-work social benefits.
The Brussels’ ‘fix’
However, this is a clear breach of the EU laws, and the EU Treaty forbids any discrimination between EU citizens. At least this is what the other 27 EU leaders told Cameron during the last European Council of 17-18 December 2015. Despite this, mainland Europe countries seem now ready to accept the four-year freeze. This may be done by abolishing benefits to all new labor force entrants for four years, but at the same time finding ways to compensate the British citizens. This is called the Brussels-London ‘fix’.
All was not easily arranged. It took painstaking efforts from Cameron himself. It all started at the official dinner during the last European Council of 2015, where Cameron made a 40 minutes long speech, passionately supporting Britain’s position within the Union. Many of the 27 leaders were impressed by his arguments and the general feeling became positive for the British PM. After that, the climate changed in mainland European capitals about the British demands. Nevertheless, there are three more changes that London wants to bring about in the workings of the European Union.
The second more important issue that Cameron has raised is the role of the Eurozone in the EU, and the relations between euro area members and non-members. The idea is that some aspects of the workings and the management of the Eurozone may negatively affect the non-members. In any case, it seems that the leaders of Eurozone do not appear negative in making sure that the development of the single money zone doesn’t discriminate against the non-members.
This refers to both those who are not yet members and those, like Britain, who will never participate. The red line here is that the 19 Eurozone members will never accord the power of veto to Britain, in the euro area decision making structures. Reportedly, the general climate is that London doesn’t seem ready to contest this red line to the end and the British government will be happy with something less than full veto power.
Over-regulated EU market
The third more important change that Cameron wants to see implemented is in reference with the functioning of the internal EU market. Everybody agrees that the internal market is over-regulated, especially in the food and the industrial equipment segments. So there is no objection to an effective strengthening of the currently applied EU efforts towards this direction or introduce new tools to reduce the regulation burden on business.
Last but not least, is the perennial issue of sovereignty, a standard topic that every member state raises, when one wants to use it as a tradable negotiation argument. Of course, Britain doesn’t bring this up only in relation to her own interests. In this issue, as traditionally happens with themes of similar magnitude, London appears to be tacitly referring to the views of certain central EU countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Let’s not forget that Euroscepticism reigns in those countries making them close allies to Britain.
The standard answer the central EU powers and Brussels offer to this question is that “Those that want to deepen integration can move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further”. As for the role of the national parliaments in relation to the European Parliament, the issue is already solved by the introduction the subsidiarity principle in the Treaty of Lisbon. After all, the House of Commons and the European Parliament have been legislating in parallel for many years now. There is no reason, then, to turn down the British request for some changes in this respect, for as long as sensitive issues foreseen in the EU Treaty are not touched.
Preparing for the fight
Of course, all that does not mean that there will be no confrontation over the details. As always, the devil is hiding there. In view of the 18-19 February European Council all the sides are laying the groundwork in support of their positions. Cameron has to fight on two fronts, internally and externally. Almost one third of his own party members and, what is more important, of the conservative deputies are of the Eurosceptic inclination. Prominent Eurosceptic conservatives are even members of the cabinet, like Home Secretary Theresa May, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan – Smith and Chris Grayling, the Leader of the House of Commons. They will never be quite happy with what Cameron can extract from Brussels and they will very probably support the Brexit in the referendum. Then it’s Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s anti-EU Independence Party (UKIP) who is constantly flank-attacking Cameron with his authentic anti-EU rhetoric.
However, Cameron can effectively silence all his critics at home, if he gets his four years freeze of social benefits for EU immigrant workers in Britain. As noted above, there is already an understanding between London and Brussels about solving this issue in an indirect EU way, but fully satisfying Britain. On every other issue raised here above Cameron is rather likely to get almost all he wants or at least it will look like that. In Brussels there are artists in this skill and can make a decision look exactly the opposite of what it is.
The Visegrad four
To secure his position in the February European Council, Cameron traveled last week to Budapest and met his Hungarian counterpart Victor Orban. This last politician, despite being a standard Eurosceptic, couldn’t miss the opportunity to be seen defending his compatriots’ rights. He told Cameron that he cannot accept discrimination against Hungarians. Mind you that the four Visegrad countries (Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary) are the source of the majority of EU immigrants to Britain. As a result, if Cameron could convince Orban, a populist politician and ostensibly strong fighter for his country’s interests, the other Visegrad countries would comply.
Hungary accepts it
It seems then that Cameron did exactly that. In the joint Press conference in Budapest, Orban said “We should be looking for solutions rather than compromises,” and then added the magic phrases explaining that Hungary was open to a ‘fix’ that doesn’t discriminate against the non-Britons. It was like angels singing to Cameron’s ears. If the central EU prospective immigrants to Britain accept the ‘fix’, Britain has no objection to ‘organize’ it. It’s also clear that mainland Europe has no problem, if Britain finds an indirect way to compensate her own nationals.
With this reassurance in his pocket, Cameron felt he could offer himself an extra allowance. Last Thursday he said that the ministers of his cabinet will be free to choose their stance in the forthcoming referendum, in relation to their country’s position in or out of the EU. Obviously, the same is true for the Conservative deputies in the Commons. It’s absurd though, especially for the government ministers, to appear with widely diverging views on an issue of paramount importance for their country’s future.
The Cameron idea though, to let his ministers support diverging views, may be that in this way the confrontation between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ campaigners will be held in low tones, and the whole affair will become a civilized and educated debate between mainstream Labor and Conservative politicians and civil society representatives. To be reminded, that the Labour party position was expressed by its leader, Jeremy Korbyn who called the referendum a “waste of public money” and explained that Cameron poses the wrong questions to Brussels. This said, it will be only Farage to surpass the limits of political correctness.
That is probably why Cameron has left his ministers free to choose their stance and thus avoid possible resignations of the ‘no’ supporters.
It has to be done fast
As the things are developing around the referendum, Cameron appears rather ready to start working for the affirmative side. This prospect may be largely clarified in the next European Council. In any case, there is an urgent need for a swift elucidation of all those questions.
So far, the British public opinion remains unguided by the government and the responsible politician, who introduced the referendum test in the first place, David Cameron himself. During the past few weeks the ‘no’ side gained support in a number of opinion polls. If the Prime Minister and his EU peers want Britain to stay firmly in the club, they have to agree in February and come up with convincing arguments. The referendum must be conducted before the summer, because the prolongation of the insecurity about Britain’s position in or out of the Union, may produce an unwanted mess.