Andrew Grice / Dec 2015
David Cameron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As David Cameron continues his talks with fellow EU leaders in the run-up to their summit on December 17-18, Downing Street insists that “good progress” is being made.
But after the Paris terrorist attacks added a security crisis to Europe’s migration crisis, the betting among EU diplomats is that the December meeting may be another staging post rather than the finishing line of the British renegotiation. That would be followed by a push to reach a deal by February.
Even without Paris, it would have been difficult to complete the process by December. Although Mr Cameron showed flexibility over the most contentious issue –his plan to restrict in-work benefits for EU migrants—when he finally listed his demands in November, there is still strong resistance from some other EU leaders.
In Britain, the mood of pro-Europeans is gloomy. They know they will be outspent by the Out camp, whose coffers are being swelled by hedge funds opposed to EU regulation of their sector. The latest opinion polls show the referendum result on a knife edge; there is no guarantee that the “status quo” argument which prevailed in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence will work on Europe.
There was some evidence that the horrific events in Paris reminded the British public warmly of their close links with their neighbour. But Eurosceptics were quick to link terrorism with migration. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said there was now “free movement of Kalashnikovs” and Jihadists. And while EU migration is in the headlines, some pro-EU campaigners fear that the traditional economic arguments for membership might be trumped by the new politics of national identity.
Of course, many voters will focus on the EU debate only in the final weeks of the campaign and it is still a referendum without a date. In theory, it could be held at the end of 2017, although Mr Cameron would like to call it next year. In a sign of the new times, UK ministers weigh up the impact of a summer of intense media coverage of desperate refugees trying to reach Europe, as they mull over the merits of a referendum next June or September.
In the Out camp, there is cautious optimism that migration could tip the scales in its favour. But the Outers admit the issue must be handled with care. Many undecided voters are repelled by Mr Farage, which is why Conservative Eurosceptics do not want him to play leading role in the Out campaign. However, immigration does worry swing voters who are no fans of Ukip.
A survey of 30,000 people by academics running the respected British Election Study found that 18 per cent of voters at the May general election described themselves as “don’t knows” on the EU referendum.
Some 77 per cent of the “don’t knows” believe that EU unification has “gone too far”; 74 per cent want Britain to protect its independence in the EU and 84 per cent are dissatisfied with EU democracy. Crucially, four out of 10 (41 per cent) of the undecideds believe that immigration is bad for the economy; 47 per cent that immigration undermines Britain’s culture and 26 per cent that migrants are a burden on the welfare state. So immigration could be a potent weapon in the battle to win the “don’t knows.”
However, Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at Kent University and co-author of a new book, “Ukip: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics” (OUP), sees a ray of hope for the In crowd. He says: “While a large number of voters are certainly concerned about the current state of affairs, many prefer more modest change, rather than risk the dramatic change that is associated with leaving altogether.”
So Mr Cameron’s strategy is right. The public is not happy with the status quo but he is not offering that. So far, so good. The Prime Minister’s problem is that he will need to win some real concessions from his European counterparts to convince voters he has genuinely reformed Britain’s troubled relationship with the EU. That could still prove very difficult.