Cruising for a bruising: Cameron’s European dilemma

David Cameron has staked much of his credibility as prime minister and leader of the British Conservative Party on a quixotic crusade to achieve ‘reform’ of the European Union.

Under pressure from a surging UKIP and the increasingly vocal eurosceptic wing of his own party, Cameron has repeatedly staked out a position supporting British membership of a reformed Europe. On 10 November, speaking at the Confederation of British Industry Conference, Cameron declared that the EU ‘isn’t working properly for us at the moment. That is why we need to make changes’.

Having promised EU reform, Cameron must deliver. Failure to do so will significantly weaken his already tenuous position. And yet, success seems unlikely. A sizeable number of his internal opponents are already preparing for a push against his leadership or defection to UKIP.

Rather than picking winnable reform issues, Cameron’s issues of choice are unlikely to produce success: he has attacked the principle of the free movement of people and roundly criticised the single currency. It is notable that these two issues are central to UKIP’s political narrative. As with his campaign against Juncker’s Commission Presidency over the summer, Cameron appears to have gambled his reputation on yet another unwinnable fight.

Failure to achieve a win on EU reform will likely force Cameron to back a UK exit from the EU, any other position would be hugely inconsistent with current rhetoric. The split on the European issue that this would, almost certainly, incite within the Conservative party ranks would all but destroy Cameron’s chances of re-election. The signs of such a potential rift are already apparent with public rifts between MEPs Sajjad Karim and Daniel Hannan as well as between Conservative elder statesmen former Prime Minister John Major and former Treasury Secretary Ken Clarke MP. In such a context it is hard to see UK voters choosing to remain in the EU if given the choice by plebiscite. The short sightedness of the British Conservative party could well ruin their re-election chances and force a UK exit of the EU.

With every successive electoral victory, UKIP’s advocacy of leaving the EU gains significant momentum in the UK, a country that has always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards its continental neighbours. And it is becoming increasingly hard to differentiate this position from that advocated by some members of the Conservative backbenches and its delegation to the European Parliament. This makes Cameron’s promises of reform all the more pertinent. It is advocacy of continued membership in a reformed EU that differentiates the Conservative position from that of UKIP and which, at least partly, keeps the party together on the issue of Europe which has so often divided their ranks.

Again and again, European leaders have ruled out compromise on the issue of ‘free movement’. Barroso, Juncker and Merkel have been vociferous in ruling out granting UK exceptions on one of the European common market’s fundamental four freedoms. Cameron’s resolute stand on this issue flies in the face of all empiric evidence. A recent University College London study showed that Britain directly benefited from EU immigration to the tune of €6.25 billion net. British Defence Secretary and Conservative MP, Michael Fallon has said that British towns are ‘swamped’ and ‘feel under siege’ from ‘large numbers of migrant workers’. Migration from EU states to Britain may be rising but is far outstripped by non-EU immigration, particularly from countries once colonised by the vast British Empire. At the same time, UK migration to other EU countries almost perfectly equates to the number of EU citizens in the UK. Neither Cameron nor UKIP are keen to speak about what will happen to them if their anti-EU immigration crusade bears fruit.

By continuing to conflate issues of EU and non-EU immigration and blaming resultant, exaggerated, issues on the EU rather than Britain’s own colonial past, they are essentially pandering to UKIP’s narrative and the xenophobic element of British society that it has ignited. This strategy serves to polarise British society, divide the Conservative party and hands the political initiative to UKIP. Without a change in approach, Cameron is gifting UKIP with electoral success as seen in Heywood & Middleton and now in Rochester & Strood.

Lacking a degree of cohesion in their argument, Cameron’s position is that the UK should be part of the single market but does not want any of political addendums. However, the ‘free movement of people’, thereby the free movement of labour, is a fundamental aspect of the single market. From the very beginning this principle has been a central goal of the European communities. There is virtually no chance that Cameron can win this fight. Yet, he shows no sign of backing off.

On his critique of the Eurozone, the UK has already achieved an effective exemption from joining the single currency. Whereas members of the EU are technically obligated to strive towards joining the single currency, the UK has been allowed pursue a different path without interference from its fellow member states. It is hard to see a UK government being able to push significant reform on a currency union it has so proudly kept out of. Out of its own choice, it simply does not have a voice at the table.

Cameron’s reactionary tactics in response to the surge in UKIP support are dangerous, for his own leadership, for Britain and for Europe. His chosen fights are unwinnable. Rather than targeting achievable reforms, Cameron is publicly working at undermining central tenets of European unity which will not be acceptable to other member states. He is destined to lose these fights, alienating his own electoral base and potential allies in Europe, and thereby hand a victory to UKIP who will use Cameron’s failure on reform as proof of their mantra that the EU is unreformable and that the UK would be better off out.