1989 Generation Initiative

Cameron’s Crunch Time

With the release of Donald Tusk’s draft settlement on the UK’s EU renegotiation, the nation’s media collectively turned its head towards Brussels and David Cameron in scrutinising the substantive aspects of the text.

Eurosceptics are correct to highlight that little would change in the day-to-day EU’s functioning should the deal be accepted and the British people vote to ‘remain’ a part of the Union. It is plainer than ever to see that Cameron’s strategy all along has been to come back from Brussels with any semblance of a deal, hail it as a victory, and subsequently have the Government campaign in favour of his deal. This unfortunately is shifting the debate to Cameron’s faux ‘extensive’ renegotiation. Lines are being drawn in a similar fashion to the Scottish Referendum with the ‘remain’ campaign orienting itself around the fear of ‘what if’ should there be an exit, instead of extolling the virtues of EU membership. This is evidenced in the most sensitive renegotiation issue of migration, with Cameron having recently exclaimed that a Brexit could bring the Calais ‘Jungle’ to the UK, despite the agreement with France for conducting border checks for illegal stowaways being independent of any EU agreement.

It would be wrong however to denounce Cameron’s renegotiation as completely unsuccessful, as he has come away with more than many people would have first imagined. On migration, many believed a so-called ‘emergency brake’ on in-work benefits would be impossible to achieve. Although the brake on benefits isn’t absolute, the initial agreement allows for these benefits to rise incrementally over the period of the brake, with remitted child benefit also only permitted at home-country rates. While a duration for the brake has yet to be agreed, it is currently presumed that it would apply immediately after a ‘remain’ vote from the UK. Regarding sovereignty, the red-card for national parliaments is set to become a reality. More notably however is a review mechanism that the Commission will set up in order to review legislation’s compliance with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. This is a big commitment from the EU and could have a substantial positive impact on all EU Member States should it become a reality. Finally, on both competitiveness and economic governance concrete statements have been secured on the EU’s commitment to reducing administrative burdens in the case of the former, and to provide ‘mutual respect’ to non-Euro countries and non-discrimination on the basis of currency in the case of the latter.

Reactions from the other Member States have been mixed, with Cameron now facing difficult negotiations, particularly with the Eastern European countries over the proposed ‘emergency brake’, before the European Council Summit next week. So far only Denmark has pledged full-support for Cameron’s renegotiation and the draft settlement. On the domestic front, Labour, the SNP and the eurosceptic Conservatives see Cameron’s draft deal as laughable and of no real substance. Many believe that a referendum is set for the 23 June, provided a final deal can be struck in Brussels this month. However, the European Parliament’s President, Martin Schulz, has indicated that Parliament would not simply roll over and accept any deal without scrutiny and debate. There is also opposition from the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a June referendum, due to devolved elections taking place in May.

The response to the agreement has been fairly muted to date given its draft form. It must not be forgotten that Europe rarely features in British citizens top five issues of concern, barring in terms of migration. It is likely momentum behind the referendum won’t build until much closer to the vote. However, debates about Brexit have been building within the UK’s higher education institutions. To name only two examples, the LSE’s Student Union recently voted in favour of supporting a ‘remain’ vote, and the organisation Oxford Students For Europe have launched a campaign to persuade and mobilise students to vote to remain in the Union. The National Union of Students has also been campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU since last October, deciding that Cameron’s renegotiation would not impact their stance. As for non-students and for 16 and 17 year olds, the latter of whom will now not be able to vote in the referendum, there has been fewer concentrated efforts at extolling the virtues or vices of EU membership. This is not to however say that they will not become more vocal as we near the referendum itself, especially while those currently vying to be selected as the official ‘remain’ and multiple ‘leave’ campaigns are entertaining sideshows of incompetency and infighting themselves.

While many are assuming that a ‘remain’ vote is inevitable in June, they are certainly jumping the gun, with the latter half of 2015 demonstrating how many unexpected EU-based crises can emerge over 6 months. What is certain if the referendum is to be held in June is that the next six months are crunch-time for Cameron, the Conservative Party, and the future of the UK as a both an EU country and a continuing union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

By Nicholas Charalambides

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