Even since 18 January this newspaper was convinced that David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, was ready to campaign for his country to remain in the European Union. A few days later, the European Sting prediction was more or less confirmed by Cameron’s speech delivered at the Davos World Economic Forum on January 21, where he confirmed that “there are good prospects to reach a full agreement in February’s European Council”. Without saying it, Cameron appeared in a hurry to swiftly clear this matter, because “the prolongation of the uncertainty about Britain’s positions in or out of the EU does a lot of harm to the country”.
A hastened vote
As a matter of fact, early in the afternoon of Friday 19 February, the European Summit finally cleared this matter and the 28 EU leaders reached a unanimous agreement about a “new settlement for the UK”, as Cameron has asked. In theory, he got what he wanted in all the conditions he had raised, in order to support the ‘stay’ option in the referendum. However, as we are going to discuss here below, this is not quite as it seems from the first reading.
In any case, Cameron immediately started his campaign in favor of the ‘stay’ vote in the referendum, which is to be held on Thursday 23 June as he announced last Saturday. Despite the deep division of his own governing Conservative party over this issue, it’s rather probable that Cameron will have it his way and his fellow Brits will vote for Britain to stay in the EU. Again in the face of it, last Friday the 27 EU leaders gave him enough ammunition to fight in favor of the EU in the forthcoming plebiscite. Cameron felt he mustn’t lose one more minute and confirmed that he was to introduce this issue to his cabinet on the very next day, Saturday.
What ‘special status’?
Presumably, this special ‘status in the EU’ for Britain, that he got from Brussels last week will give him enough arguments to convince his compatriots to vote in favour of ‘stay’ in the referendum. The main pillars of Cameron’s campaign will be that the influx of migrant EU workers to Britain will be drastically reduced and that the country will stay out from a possible future political integration of the mainland Europe EU countries. Add to that a total exemption of the London City from the Brussels jurisdiction and a reassurance that the Eurozone and the euro will not harm in any way the British pound and Cameron seems to have enough to win the referendum in favor of the EU.
Nevertheless, the Brits who prefer to leave the EU are many even within the Conservative party and already six ministers of the Cameron government have announced their choice to counter the PM’s option. Many weeks ago Cameron had clarified that the government members and the party’s deputies and cadres are free to choose which side to support in the 23 June referendum. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Commons Leader Chris Grayling, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and Minister of State for Employment Priti Patel have swiftly decided to campaign for the ‘leave’ side.
Many more want to stay
At the same time, 22 Cameron ministers are favoring the ‘stay’ side. Divided as well are the deputies of the governing Conservative party with dozens having announced their choice to support the ‘leave’ or ‘stay’ side. Unlike the public opinion in England that presently remains rather divided, the Scotts prefer to ‘stay’ in the EU. The same is true for the Labour party deputies and voters.
Let’s come now down to what Cameron got from Brussels last Friday. Obviously, the most important issues has been the social benefits for the EU immigrants working in Britain. According to the agreement concluded last Friday in Brussels by the 28 EU leaders, immigrant workers from other EU countries will be entitled for ‘in work’ benefits four years after their arrival to the UK, unlike today when they are entitled for ‘in work’ benefits from day one. During that time though, while the immigrant will be progressively blending in with British society he or she will be able to progressively apply for some benefits.
What did Cameron really get?
Cameron didn’t manage to extend the break of ‘in work’ benefits to immigrants already working in Britain for less than four years . As a result, the new arrangement will be applied to newcomers. As noted above, the British Prime Minister believes that this arrangement will be a great disincentive to new arrivals. In any case, this is the most important concession the other 27 EU leaders made to him. This is a clear breach though of the EU Treaty which foresees that all EU citizens have equal rights while in employment in any member state. Nonetheless, this is not the first time that the rights of workers in employment in another EU country are violated. Labour ‘wholesalers’ can freely hire people in one country and ‘let’ them to employers across the borders paying them at home rates and terms.
The second key compromise that Cameron got from Brussels is that any plan for a closer European Union “will not apply to the United Kingdom”. This is not something new. Britain has been exempted from a number of key EU projects:
– not to adopt the euro and therefore to keep the British pound sterling as its currency (Protocol No 15),
– not to participate in the Schengen acquis and area (Protocols No 19 and 20),
– to choose whether or not to participate in measures in the area of freedom, security and justice (Protocol No 21),
– to cease to apply as from 1 December 2014 a large majority of Union acts and provisions in the field of police cooperation and judicial (Article 10 (4) and (5) of Protocol No 36).
Safeguarding the City
Last but not least, the British PM got reassurances that the London City and the banks based in Britain will not face discrimination for being established outside the Eurozone. Last Friday’s agreement foresees that “discrimination between natural or legal persons based on the official currency of the Member State, or, as the case may be, the currency that has legal tender in the Member State, where they are established is prohibited”. However, in this case too this provision secures nothing more than what the British financial system has already secured in its relation with the Eurozone. The EU legislation and practice hasn’t even touched on the freedoms of the British ‘tax haven’ islands in the Channel.
All in all, last Friday’s agreement was more of a show to help Cameron support effectively the ‘stay’ option in the 23 June referendum, rather than a real change of the UK position in the EU. As for the four year break of the ‘in-work’ benefits for EU immigrant workers, this will not severely impede the flow of workers to Britain from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and other mainland Europe EU countries. The main thing is the employment opportunities and the wage differentials. The proof of that is that the leaders of the above mentioned member states didn’t present any strong opposition or reserves to the final text of the agreement. They were happy to secure that the new provisions will not apply to the workers who are already employed in Britain.
In short, the whole thing comes up to a rather safe exercise to mend Cameron’s political flimsiness committed ahead of last May’s legislative election, before which he hard promised to renegotiate his country’s position in the EU ahead of the in or out the EU referendum. At that time, Cameron had become really scared about his political future, after a number of conservative politicians defected to the Nigel Farage’s anti-EU UKIP. In reality the Brexit, apart from this last fringe group, is sought after only by a small but powerful group within the Conservative party made up of neoliberals and super conservative right-wing figures.
Cameron was never a part of this group of the Conservative party and the theory that the referendum is threatening the unity of the Tories is rather far-fetched. The ‘stay’ side victory may not be clearly visible right now, but in a few weeks time this is bound to become apparent. Consequently, the 23 June vote may degrade into an expensive and needless exercise, as Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party has labeled the referendum. The few strongly anti-EU Tories understand that the British electoral system will very easily extinguish their kind if they split, and they can only hope for a sit in the European Parliament as the unconvincing, to say the least, UKIP does.
Cameron’s first comment that the Brexit is “leap in the dark” seems enough to win the day.