EU Reporter 27 August 2014
As the political season resumes in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has let it be known that he is ready to back Britain leaving the EU unless he gets reform in Europe that satisfies his party and of course himself. It is the closest he has come to endorsing ‘Brexit’ as a possible option for any government he might lead after the election in May 2015.
The threat is not spelt out on the record but very heavy briefing of the London press leaves little doubt that this is part of the British leader’s policy of putting pressure on Jean-Claude Juncker, and EU national leaders.
But once again, David Cameron does not list the reforms he wants or the specific changes in Britain’s relationship with the EU he believes are necessary for him to go out and campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in his proposed 2017 referendum.
With just three years to go – a blink of an eyelid in the terms of the slow rhythm of EU parleys – it really is very odd for the British prime minister to stake his country’s future without telling his partners or his people what exactly he wants.
Britain and the EU are not any wiser than in January 2013 when Cameron announced there would be an ‘In-Out’ plebiscite after a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU beginning upon his re-election as prime minister next May.
No one knows the outcome of that election. Opinion polls tend to put the Labour Party ahead but its leader, Ed Miliband, is not as popular as David Cameron and the improved economic performance in the UK with 3% growth and 6% unemployment is in contrast to the poor eurozone figures and the lamentable economic story in France, the country Britain tends to measure itself against.
Cameron and the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, are pledged to hold a referendum while the other political formations – Labour, Liberal Democratic, Nationalists in Scotland Wales and Greens – oppose a referendum in 2017 which they say is not needed or useful.
Many see this Brexit plebiscite as a dangerous moment in a Britain where anti-EU sentiment is strong and backed by most off-shore media proprietors, many in business, as well as the vast majority of the ruling Conservative MPs.
But while Cameron says at regular intervals he is pledged to hold the In-Out referendum in 2017 he has never listed the reforms or repatriated powers he wants from Brussels.
His Europe minister, David Liddington, told the Financial Times there must be ‘treaty change’ but again he will not stipulate what that Treaty change is. Moreover, few even in Britain can imagine a new EU Treaty just to suit Britain in place by 2017, the year of a French presidential election, and one that in more and more countries would require a referendum to be ratified.
Others such as former UK foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, says that EU social rules should be applied to Britain. In a sense his generation want to roll the clock back to the late 1980s, prior to Maatricht. But the venom against Europe has deepened and widened since then.
Another demand is that Britain can unilaterally decide which citizens from other EU member states are allowed into the UK to live and work. This of course means the end of the four freedoms – of movement of goods, capital, services and people – which are at the core of European construction since the Treaty of Rome.
Poland has made clear it will never accept any such change, which is seen as directed at Polish workers in the UK. Relations now between Warsaw and London are at their worst in decades.
But while these demands figures in remarks by Conservative MPs and the EU-hostile press they have never been put forward as the official British government position by Cameron or his ministers.
A further complication is that some ministers and many Conservative MPs are demanding that Britain pulls out of the European Court of Human Right because its rulings – notably on the rights of detained or convicted terrorists – upset those who believe that British judges alone should decide what happens to prisoners. Tory and Labour MPs united to criticize an ECHR ruling that some categories of prisoners should be allowed to vote which is permitted in Switzerland and EU member states even if not much used.
So Euroscepticism in Britain is not just about Brussels but about having to live with ECHR rulings and other Europeans living and working in the United Kingdom.
But Britain still awaits from its prime minister a specific list of changes that the EU must concede in order for him to lead a Yes campaign in his 2017 plebiscite.
Cameron of course needs to remind voters that he has promised them a referendum but his refusal to state the concession he want to obtain is becoming an embarrassment. But in a calibrated change of tone he is now saying that Brexit is possible. It is not yet his official position. But he is creating the very atmosphere which makes Britain leaving the EU if not a certainty, a strong possibility that policymakers in other government and businesses need to take seriously.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Europe minister. His book, Brexit, will be published later this year.