Article Published January 21st, 2014

by Brendan Donnelly

Until shortly before Christmas, the Prime Minister would have been entitled to congratulate himself on the success of his important speech about Europe on 23rd January 2013 in quieting Conservative controversy and divisions on this subject. The compromise he proposed in it, of a radical renegotiation in the next Parliament of the terms of British membership of the European Union, followed by a referendum, was one which seemed to have satisfied all wings of his fractious party. It was not unreasonable to believe that this truce would last at least until the European Elections of May 2014 and possibly beyond.

The first weeks of 2014 however have brought a number of unwelcome New Year’s developments to Mr. Cameron on the European issue. The year started with the ending of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians seeking work in the United Kingdom. Given the general agreement of academics and commentators that immigrants confer net economic benefits on the United Kingdom, it might have been expected that this prospect would be greeted with enthusiasm by a Conservative government which has always favoured the enlargement of the European Union and likes to present itself as an enthusiastic advocate of the single European market. Such enthusiasm has however been distinctly muted, not least as a result of a vicious campaign by elements of the British Eurosceptic press, predicting vast numbers of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, who would simultaneously take jobs away from British workers and live in idleness on the excessive generosity of the British benefits system. The government (particularly the Conservative components of it ) has been unable and unwilling to resist effectively such populist pressures. Regular announcements have been made in the first weeks of 2014 about proposals to make access to the British benefits system more difficult for immigrants from the European Union. Such mean-mindedness has caused great offence in Central and Eastern European countries; nor is there any reason to believe that their introduction will significantly affect the numbers of citizens of those countries wishing to work in the United Kingdom.

On Sunday, 12th January, the Sunday Telegraph reported that 95 Conservative MPs had signed a letter to the Prime Minister recommending that one of the goals he should set himself in the renegotiation was that of securing a veto for the House of Commons over all present and future European legislation. The precise numbers and terms of this letter are in dispute. What is not in dispute is that Mr. Cameron is now under pressure from his Party, in a way he has not been until now, to formulate more precisely his renegotiating goals after 2015. He has received this week some probably unwelcome help in this task from his Chancellor, George Osborne, whose recommendations for a reformed European revolve around the twin propositions that other members of the European Union should pull their economic socks up, as the United Kingdom is doing; and that Britain should not in any circumstances derive any disadvantage from its non-participation in the single European currency.

There is of course a good reason why Mr. Cameron has been until now so vague in the terms he might seek for a renegotiated position of the United Kingdom in the European Union. As a political realist, he knows that there is an abyss between the absolute maximum his partners might be willing to concede in this renegotiation and the absolute minimum necessary to satisfy the desires of the great majority of his supporters in the House of Commons. The sharpening of the debate about immigration has made his position incomparably more difficult than it was. Today’s Financial Times contains an article making clear just how little support the United Kingdom would enjoy in any attempts fundamentally to undermine the principle of free movement. We are often told by the press sympathetic to Mr. Cameron that the German government in particular has sympathy for the British desire to renegotiate its obligations within the European Union. Today’s Financial Times gives the lie to such wishful thinking.

It is not easy to predict whether in the next Parliament the United Kingdom will hold a European referendum, and if so on what precise topic. One thing however seems abundantly clear. It will not be on the basis of the process and timetable laid out by Mr. Cameron in January, 2013.That speech was essentially designed to bridge the internal schisms of the Conservative Party. It succeeded for almost a year. The months leading up to the European Elections however will be a time of renewed pressure on the Prime Minister in regard to his European policy. The prospect of success for UKIP in the Elections before May and the probable reality of such success after May will be used by the Prime Minister’s adversaries within the Party as an instrument for seeking to bludgeon the Conservative Party yet further along the road of withdrawal from the European Union, which is the goal of many of these opponents.