EU Reporter 5 November 2014
Denis MacShane | November 5, 2014
There is no something approaching panic in the British commentariat that the United Kingdom may be edging to the point of no return on staying in the European Union.
A number of senior and respected writers on international affairs are now expressing open worry that David Cameron’s language on imposing quotas on EU citizens who wish to travel to the UK represents such a fundamental breach in the principle of free movement that such policy would be incompatible with EU membership.
There have always been mutterings in private seminars and meeting but for the first time major European policy commentators are beginning to press the alarm button,
The immediate reason was an article in Der Spiegel which appeared to have come from the Kanzleramt in Berlin and thus represented Merkel’s views. She was reported to have sighed and said the UK could leave the EU if David Cameron insisted on abolishing free movement of EU citizens as far as Britain is concerned. The four freedoms of movement – of capital, goods, services and people – are considered the cornerstones of Europe. Remove or tamper with one of them then the others also lose the sanctity and any government can start imposing quotas on goods or capital flows it does not like.
If Mr Cameron’s proposed 2017 In-Out referendum happens will he even argue that Britain should stay in the EU asked the influential Charles Grant who heads the Centre for European Reform in his Financial Times column: ‘Faced with a surge of euroscepticism in his Conservative party, and convinced he must satisfy demands to curb immigration he is on the brink of making radical demands that his EU partners will reject. When the referendum comes, he may have little choice but to campaign for withdrawal.’
Grant was echoing a point made by Hugo Dixon in the New York Times. He wrote: ‘If the prime minister commits himself to getting the right to impose quotas, the logic of his position will force him to campaign to quit the union — assuming, that is, he wins next year’s general election and is in a position to hold his promised in/out referendum. Dixon went further. ‘It might even be helpful if business leaders, most of whom normally back the Conservatives, made clear they were rethinking their support. Although Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, is not an appealing prospect as prime minister, at least he wouldn’t take Britain out of the European Union.’
This is the first time a senior business focused commentator has said a vote for Labour is preferable for the CEOs who want to stay in the EU.
In The Independent the sharp and respected political commentator Steve Richards said the Conservatives had to understand that EU leaders would do so much to help keep Britain in the EU but not what Tory and UKIP MPs and MEPs want. Richards quoted a German official. ‘In the early summer a close ally of Merkel expressed to me her stance in precisely the same way as outlined in the article, insisting it was a myth that the German leader would do whatever it took to keep the UK in the EU. He told me that the UK’s demands – and ultimate fate – were not even her main priority within Europe. Her overwhelming focus was on the eurozone, in which the UK plays no part. Yes, Merkel would prefer the UK to remain in, but not at any cost.’
Mary Dejevsky in the The Guardian echoed her colleagues and criticized Downing Street’s ‘abysmal record in reading German intentions. Time and again, Cameron has seemed to bank on what he sees as assurances of support from the German chancellor for his endeavours, only to be disappointed when it turns out that in a clash between London and Brussels, Germany’s loyalties will be to the EU.
“If Cameron has a failing as a politician it is in his ability to ‘read’ foreigners,” she added.
Eurosceptic think-thanks such as Open Europe are dreaming up schemes which involve limiting the rights of any foreigner coming into the UK to access social benefits for three years, a position also advanced by the commentator David Goodhart who suggests a 2 year ban on access to social benefits. But the main objection of the Tory-Ukip line is to the number of EU citizens who are in Britain not the level of benefits they receive. In any event, young healthy European workers are net contributors to UK government income. The main benefit claimers tend to be immigrants from Asia who come to marry or for family reunions and seek to access unemployment, child benefit and other welfare payments.
In short, there is now the first serious criticism by mainstream commentators on Mr Cameron’s line that the EU has to make major concessions to him notably in the area of free movement of people. The issue of Brexit is rising fast up the political agenda.
Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister for Europe. His book on Brexit will be published early in the New Year.