Rethinking Europe, Global HotSpots

Make or Break Week for Brexit and David Cameron

David Cameron will get a form of words from Brussels this week. But will it be enough?

Credit: GrAl Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • In provincial Britain, appeals from the Davos crowd or a US Secretary of State count for little.
  • Will the Tories decide that staying in Europe as a united party is top priority?
  • David Cameron will get a form of words from Brussels this week. But will it be enough?
  • Discriminatory treatment of workers from other EU nations runs against Corbyn’s idea of “Social” Europe.

This week will be the most crucial in Britain’s tortuous relationship with Europe before the nation arrives at the final moment of truth in the referendum on whether Britain remains in or quits the European Union.

Three years ago, Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would hold a plebiscite on British membership in the European Union, if he were returned to power in the May 2015 election.

This week he goes to Brussels for the summit of EU heads of government to try to return on Friday waving a bit of paper saying he has obtained Euro peace and thus the British can vote to stay in the EU.

He has some problems. The latest opinion poll shows Cameron is now below 50% in terms of public trust on Europe since he started the high-profile negotiations to redefine Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Opinion polls are trending to a Brexit vote. Every major referendum in other European countries this century with Europe on the ballot has been lost.

Any settlement possible?

What is called “Project Panic” is now under way. This is a series of warnings from prominent business leaders, diplomats, and even John Kerry, all warning that British standing in the world and the nation’s appeal to inward investors will suffer if Brexit happens.

But Cameron knows that in deep provincial Britain, appeals from the Davos crowd or a patrician U.S. Secretary of State count for little.

The British have been told for more than 20 years by Conservative politicians, most of the press and much of business that the European Union is a pain in the butt – “too bossy and bureaucratic” in Cameron’s own words.

The EU is responsible for sending over millions of immigrant workers, even though the Irish, Italians, Poles and hundreds of thousands of American, French, German and now Chinese and Russian bankers have been operating in the City of London for decades.

Cameron says he is packing 3 shirts for the 2-day meeting which shows he is looking for an all-night mano-a-mano struggle with German Chancellor Merkel or French President Hollande so he can emerge at dawn, claiming he has won a major new settlement for the UK in the EU.

The Brexit dream

This will be followed next weekend by a major media briefing that Cameron has emerged the winner. On 22 February, Cameron will report to the Commons.

The day after, the British cabinet will meet and at that point Britain will learn how many Conservative ministers and MPs are going to stand by the anti-EU rhetoric of the last 15 years and actually sign up for Brexit.

There is much speculation but no certainty. Will the Tories risk a 19th century split in their party, as over free trade, or will they hold their noses, do a somersault, and decide that staying in Europe as a united party is the top priority?

Anti-Europeans are being offered a new option by Cameron’s cerebral policy chief, the cabinet minister Oliver Letwin. He argues that now is not the time to promote Brexit.

Instead, people who want Britain to leave Europe should wait until the next major EU treaty revision in four or five years time when there will be a much better opportunity to quit the EU.

Thus the dream of Brexit never dies. It does not even fade away. The politics of Brexit will go on and on. So even if the UK decides to stay in the EU, that decision will not be accepted by many.

The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is reported to be ready to oppose Cameron’s attempts to get symbolic concessions on EU citizens working in Britain, obtaining the low-pay top-up supplements similar to the U.S. Earned Income Tax Credit that some poorly paid workers currently enjoy.

For Corbyn, who many in Britain compare to Bernie Sanders, discriminatory treatment of workers from other EU nations working in the UK runs against his idea of “Social” Europe, in which workers are protected and trade unions are strong.

Opposition from inside

If that happens, Britain might see the Labour Party at odds with the Prime Minister from a left-wing social solidarity perspective.

Many of Mr Cameron’s own Tory MPs and ministers oppose him as they have been told since 1997 (when the Conservatives entered opposition) that the EU was bad for Britain.

Labour politicians have the bitter memory of Conservatives and other anti-EU politicians using the years of the Labour government (1997-2010) to attack Labour for letting too many European workers and other immigrants and refugees into Britain.

They are nervous that the EU referendum will be about immigration and fear the worst. For David Cameron it is the biggest challenge of his political career. He will get a form of words from Brussels this week. But will it be enough?

He has spent 15 years denigrating and criticizing the EU. Now he has 15 weeks to persuade the British that all those critical statements deployed to attack a pro-EU Tony Blair Labour government are inoperative and that Britain must stay in the EU.

If not completely Mission Impossible, it will require all his skills as a former public relations professional to sell the EU to a deeply skeptical Britain.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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