Saturday

6th Mar 2021

Analysis

Waiting for Cameron

  • David Cameron - Will he make the case for the EU in his new term as PM?

Now that the UK election has finally taken place – and to the general amazement of outside observers, with barely a mention of the EU – 2017 is suddenly looking an awful lot closer.

Before Thursday’s election, 2017 was just an undefined point ‘after the vote’. But in light of David Cameron’s decisive victory, the maximum 17 months between today and when the UK is supposed to have a referendum on EU membership has come sharply into focus. The in/out poll has moved from an idea to a reality.

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While the timeframe is relatively clear, everything else remains fuzzy. Including the key question of what exactly London wants to see changed. Behind the puffed-up-for-domestic-consumption rhetoric, there is little of substance. It could be summed up as ‘something must be done about intra-EU migration; red tape and employment/social laws’.

It is not an awful lot to go on. Nevertheless, there is talk about treaty change. This is highly unrealistic. There are 28 member states; they all need to agree on what needs to be changed. Then they need to ratify the changes. Will Cameron settle for tweaks to legislation rather than treaty change, or minor treaty changes that can be ratified at at a later point? That is also not known.

On top of this, 2017 will not be just any old year. Two of the EU’s biggest states, France and Germany, will be holding elections. France’s election could in itself prove an existential moment for the EU if far-right leader Marine Le Pen continues to do well in the polls. Meanwhile, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s de facto leader on issues ranging from economic policy to foreign policy, might not run again.

Both Paris and Berlin will be in campaign mode and mindful of how much they can be seen to give to Cameron. In Paris’ case, it will be less rather than more.

The expectation in Brussels is that Cameron will finally reclaim the EU debate from the hardline eurosceptic backbenchers now that he is back in Downing Street.

One senior EU official, speaking in April, was quietly confident about the referendum. “They’re not going to leave the EU,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.

People generally don’t vote for big change unless they feel they have to.

Still, Cameron will have to be seen to win something. Both sides have something at stake. Cameron doesn’t want to go down as the man who led the UK out of the EU. The EU would be severely diminished by one of its largest member states leaving. A balance will need to be found.

But first, someone needs to show their hand and that has to be Cameron. “Now lets’s see what they want,” said one EU official after the election.

In fact, it is remarkable how much political will there is – even if it’s not particularly altruistic – to look beyond the UK's shrill EU debate and to accommodate London. Commission officials frame the UK/EU debate in terms of London “seeking guarantees” in order to stay in the EU.

One senior EU official noted that the European Commission’s drive for a capital markets union, an energy union and a digital union - as well as future plans to push member states to implement single market legislation - are all something the UK can actively support.

The commission's current strategy on reducing legislation, making better law, and only acting when it has to could have been drawn up in Whitehall.

Meanwhile, toward the end of the year, the commission is due to present a “mobility package” - dealing with EU citizens moving from one member state another. Immigration and so-called 'welfare tourism' (although there is little evidence of it) has shaped much of the UK's debate on Europe.

The proposals are likely to include something seeking to prevent abuse. If he chooses to, Cameron could shape the proposals and make the case for the EU. That is what is expected.

What is not expected is that Cameron seeks to undermine the four freedoms of the EU - specifically the one allowing people to move freely in the bloc.

What is also not expected is a return to talk of 'repatriating' powers. "That is toxic," said one official.

Cameron's first words on the EU and his first EU visits in his new term of prime minister will set the tone of the coming discussion. He should choose wisely.

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