Ten key points on Brexit
Pro-Europeans mustn’t be complacent. They have an uphill battle to keep the UK in the EU.
By DENIS MACSHANE
11/5/15, 5:30 AM CET
Updated 10/5/15, 11:14 PM CET
1. The lead-up to the Brexit referendum is going to be the trickiest two years in Britain’s post-war history. For the first time in the history of the EU, a nation will be offered a plebiscite in which the option is not one of saying no to a treaty, or rejecting eurozone membership, but of voting to leave the organization itself.
2. The British have been told by their politicians, the press and their business leaders that there is so much wrong with the EU that only a major renegotiation of the UK’s status within the EU can put this right.
3. Senior Conservatives like John Major and Boris Johnson as well as most Tory MPs call for an end of free movement, an end to social Europe applying to UK firms, and the removal of windy words about “ever closer union of peoples” that have been in treaties since 1957. They assert the right of the UK Parliament to reject EU rules or policies it does not like, and want special protection for the City of London, so the UK’s banks, hedge funds, and the financial industry can opt out of EU regulations.
4. By contrast, pro-Europeans like Charles Grant of the Commission on European Reform and Mark Leonard of the European Council of Foreign Relations have set out more modest demands, which they believe the EU can concede and David Cameron should seek to obtain.
5. The problem for the professional think-tankers is that the EU question is about raw political emotion, not rational balance-sheet formulae. Mr Cameron won his victory by appealing to English nationalism, by adopting the UKIP demand for a plebiscite, and by targeting Liberal Democrat seats in England with precision campaigning. He has a smaller majority than John Major had in 1992, and his party is full of MPs who won selection as candidates by promising local associations they would oppose the EU.
6. There is a Panglossian feeling among many pro-Europeans that, at the end of the day, the British would never, ever, vote to quit Europe. They quote opinion polls to that effect, even after the pollsters have been utterly discredited. Labour MPs in Scotland were convinced that their giant majorities would protect many, if not all, from the SNP. The Lib Dems never believed they could lose 50 seats and see a major pro-EU voice effectively eliminated from British politics. The idea that the referendum is unloseable surely needs revision.
7. What can Europe do? Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has made clear he wants to help Britain stay in the EU — but not at any price. Manfred Weber, the influential German CSU politician, says “On the referendum, the ball is in Mr Cameron’s court. He has to put his demands on the table. But the EU freedoms are not negotiable.” Juncker also insists on the sanctity of EU rules on freedom of movement. At a meeting in the Bundestag on the day after the election, Jens Zimmerman, the SPD MP and chair of the Anglo-German parliamentary committee, said there was no question of “meeting impossible demands from David Cameron.” A smart move by Cameron would be to lead the Conservative Party back into the European Peoples Party as a symbol that he wanted to rejoin the mainstream centre-right in Europe. But this would produce a revolt by Tory MEPs like Daniel Hannan and cause such upheaval in the Tory Party that it’s unlikely to happen.
8. It is not clear who actually does the negotiating with Cameron — the Commission or the Council. Every proposal and any final deal will have to be accepted by 27 member states, many with complex internal rules about referendums on changes in how the EU works, and with Eurosceptic political forces who will insist that any concession to the UK should apply in their countries as well. The European Parliament will want to have its say and it is hard to see its plain-spoken president, Martin Schulz, accepting any weakening of social Europe. This would also be true of leaders like Hollande in France or Renzi in Italy.
9. Brussels has no problem with ending “benefit tourism” —claims for full access to welfare payments by EU citizens recently moved to another EU country. The European Court of Justice, in a landmark ruling, has already upheld the decision of the German government to refuse such benefits. But what the Tories, UKIP and much of the British press want is for Britain to be able to limit the number of Poles, Slovakians, Bulgarians and so forth who actually come and work in the UK.
10. There are suggestions that a referendum can be held before Cameron’s deadline of 2016. There is merit in this, but it will still require an enormous effort to reverse the two decades of anti-EU feeling generated by Tory-UKIP politicians, especially brilliant populist performers like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and William Hague, as well as the anti-EU conga-line of mass circulation editors. Pro-Europeans in Britain need to move, and move fast. Otherwise it will be too late.
Denis MacShane is a former British Labour MP and Minister for Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (IB Tauris).