David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership and to hold an in/out referendum may have helped to secure an election victory for the Conservative Party, but the move could turn out to be bittersweet in the long term.
The great European question was a centrepiece of the election campaign, yet the particular details of what renegotiation can achieve remain unclear.
In such situations history often proves itself to hold valuable lessons. Harold Wilson’s Labour government came to power in 1974 promising to negotiate a better deal for Britain in the then European Economic Community and put membership to a referendum in 1975. A sticking point for the UK was its large contribution to the EU budget, the majority of which was then spent on the Common Agricultural Policy and did not directly benefit Britain.
The problem for Wilson was that his intentions were never quite matched by the reality of what he was able to achieve. Wilson found that EEC member states were preoccupied with the economic turmoil of the decade and were unwilling to concede much to Britain. The UK had to settle for the establishing of the European Regional Development Fund as way of financial compensation. The only way that he was able to appease both pro and anti-Europe factions was by removing the need for party consensus on the issue and allowing for campaigning on both sides of the argument.
David Cameron is entering a renegotiation of the terms of membership in an almost identical situation, but expectations are much higher than in Wilson’s day. Cameron has hinted that he wants to push for treaty changes, despite vetoing those suggested by the EU in 2011 in response to the eurozone crisis. EU leaders may be asking themselves why they should make major concessions for such an awkward partner.
There is also very little appetite for meeting Cameron’s demands in Brussels, not least because it will open a Pandora’s box. Other member states could start making all kinds of demands if the UK gets its way. The result being that membership becomes a pick and mix for all, thereby undermining the whole EU project.
Cameron has made it clear that that he wants to remove Britain from the commitment of “ever closer union” found within the EU treaty. For those on the right of his party this commitment suggests the eventual formation of an EU federal state. He may be able to achieve a deal of this, but on other issues there is a great deal of uncertainty.
When it comes to immigration, Cameron initially suggested introducing a quota for EU migrants coming into the UK. Given that this would mean altering one of the EU’s four founding principles (free movement), his idea has been received with hostility from other member states and he was forced to backtrack.
The new idea is to limit EU migrants from claiming benefits, including in-work benefits, until they have been resident in the UK for four years. Cameron will need to galvanise support from other EU leaders on this proposal and he may even have to settle for a waiting period much lower than four years.
Cameron has also raised a number of other issues surrounding his vision of the EU. They include increased competitiveness of the European economy further deregulation and the cutting of red tape, and a full removal of the barriers to the single market so that the EU is a true free trade zone.
These are already key priorities for the EU and so the British position looks confusing. This could be Cameron’s attempt to steer the EU away from supranational integration and back to the longstanding UK belief of the EU as a free trade area.
The danger is that the other 27 member states may simply decide that the EU is already doing all that Britain is demanding or that sufficient concessions have already been given to the UK over the last 30 years and will refuse to give any more ground.
The good news for Cameron is that the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, as well as some national leaders, have said they are prepared to listen to what London has to say. But the fact remains that in terms of outcomes, Cameron may be able to secure very little that he can sell to the British public and Tory backbenchers, and this increases the chances of an exit vote in the referendum.
Winning an outright majority in the election is a victory for Cameron, but he is about to face his greatest challenge. If he gets this wrong he risks splitting his party, which is already deeply divided over Europe. And given that a UK withdrawal of the EU would trigger another Scottish independence referendum, he risks the breakup of the UK too.