A letter laying out EU proposals for convincing the UK to stay in the EU opens a new phase in negotiations that should ultimately lead to the kick-off of the referendum campaign. Cameron now has to focus on convincing voters at home while playing down tensions in his ruling party.
The second phase of the UK renegotiation of its EU membership started on 2 February when European Council President Donald Tusk sent a letter presenting his draft proposals.
The letter is vague with a lot of details to be worked out on each of the four demands Prime Minister David Cameron made. Failure to meet these demands will affect Cameron’s stance going into the referendum on EU membership.
But the letter leaves room for the reforms to be discussed on a political level at a Summit of EU leaders on 18-19 February, a key date if the PM wants to hold the referendum on 23 June and not at a later date. Somewhat unexpectedly, Cameron already secured the support of Poland – in exchange for his support on NATO security and in Warsaw’s battle against Brussels for its record on the rule of law – which was by far the country most opposed to the proposed emergency brake for cutting migrants’ benefits.
So what exactly could go wrong for Cameron in the months leading to the final vote?
Towards a political deal
At first sight, the draft is a well-balanced piece of multilateral agreement. No red lines have been crossed, although the document stays purposely vague on the details:
This shows Donald Tusk tried to strike a balance between giving enough arguments for Cameron to sell the deal to British voters, yet not upsetting other European capitals (or inspiring them to launch their own renegotiation claims) by being too generous.
The French were satisfied with the absence of a new power to veto steps the Euro monetary union might consider in the future to integrate further – a red line for Paris. Berlin made clear it had no objection to the deal, and countries opposed to the fourth demand on migrants have not voiced any objection to the proposed emergency break.
With European capitals reluctant to let the UK leave the bloc, the preliminary deal leaves room for marginal adjustments to polish this balance and avoid unsettling UK negotiators and voters.
Challenge from Brussels
There is still the risk of an ultimate challenge from the European Parliament, which has a veto on any legislation that could undermine the EU core principle of free movement. Martin Schulz, the EP President, said he was uneasy with the emergency brake on migrants’ benefits and eager to oppose it in a post-referendum vote.
Moreover, some MEPs feel threatened by the red-card mechanism that would enable 15 (of the 28) national parliaments to veto some of their legislation – hence their desire to be able to vote on the whole package of reforms.
But such an outcome is highly unlikely. First, because European states are the power brokers in Europe – a truth which has only been exacerbated by the succession of crises in the past few years. Additionally, when faced with defining threats like a Brexit, the EU has proved unwilling to defend its values at any cost; the deal passed with Turkey to reduce the flow of refugees in Europe is the most recent illustration.
Finally, the red-card mechanism has little chance to ever be used, and an EP challenge is strategically dangerous as the British voters would likely grow more Eurosceptic and eager to vote for leaving should Cameron’s deal be overthrown by Brussels.
The real challenge is at home
At home though, the race is starting to look increasingly close; polls are showing contradictory results (though UK pollsters were discredited during last year’s parliamentary election). Thus the Prime Minister has to stick to his guns and hope that the deal he secured will be enough to appease voters.
An important element that will intensify the contest will be growing dissent within his Conservative party. This was expected since the PM invited his ministers to campaign on whichever side they wished, but the rebellion could grow considering that part of his cabinet is still undecided (see below). After Tusk’s letter went public, it was clear that many MPs in Cameron’s majority were not convinced, and the draft was savaged by much of the press.
An ally the Prime Minister hoped to lean on is the business community, but business leaders have also been divided on the issue. Even the City seemed to be cautious about the draft plan after financial operators were disappointed to find little promises of protection from aggressive EU policy.
But once the campaign kicks off, there is no doubt that a significant support will come from the City and multinationals headquartered in the UK who consider the European Single Market as essential.
Supporters of a Brexit suggest that Britain would actually be free to secure trade deals with America, China, and India, all while re-entering the EU Single Market. But on trade, numbers suggest that the UK would suffer from a temporary exit since it relies heavily on the European market for its exports.
The battle of ideas
Overall, the debate holds promises of fierce political opposition between ‘In’ and ‘Out’ advocates. The deal secured by Cameron is unlikely to tilt the balance either way, and in the end, Britons will probably chose to remain in the EU, if not because of the lack of an attractive alternative, then for the incapacity of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign to present voters with one.
But Cameron will find a divided Conservative party at the end of the journey. Elections in Scotland, Wales, and London on May 5 could even electrify the debate in his camp and leave permanent scars in the party, if it receives a backlash.
Should Cameron fail to secure the British people’s backing at the end of this tumultuous process, the Prime Minister has promised to remain in office and prepare the country for Brexit. A phase of instability and uncharted territory would follow, and the leader would have to reconcile advocates of both sides in his party.
But if the Britons vote to stay, another set of challenges will still await Cameron as his cabinet (probably reshuffled) will have to reunite the ruling party in order to avoid a political deadlock for the rest of his term.