Time was when the most worrying people for British pro-Europeans were the highly vocal Eurosceptics, such as Nigel Farage of UKIP or John Redwood and Bill Cash of the Conservatives. Right now, that is no longer true, and not just because UKIP and Mr Farage are fading from view. Right now, the most worrying person for those advocating that Britain should stay in the European Union is David Cameron.
This is not because the British Prime Minister has become an advocate of Brexit. It still feels safe to assume that the leader of the Conservative Party wants, in his heart of hearts, to keep Britain in the EU. No, the real worry is the way he is going about achieving that goal.
Once the referendum campaign begins, probably sometime during the late spring of 2016, Mr Cameron and his close government allies are bound to be important voices, highly influential in persuading voters which way to lean. In opinion polls, Europe always ranks low on voters’ lists of the most important issues which suggests that the number of people who will make up their mind at the last minute will be unusually high.
Mr Cameron has set up this referendum with him at its centre: by pledging to negotiate a series of reforms with the other 27 EU countries, he has positioned the referendum as a verdict on the success of that negotiation. If he can return triumphant and then campaign forcefully and passionately for continued British membership, then a clear majority in favour of the status quo can be expected.
Which is why his tactics are worrying. Just weeks ahead of the December EU summit which he until recently was expecting to be the climax of his negotiation, he has chosen to focus British demands on the most controversial and least tenable of his proposals: his desire to prevent new EU migrants in Britain from being eligible to collect welfare benefits for four years after their arrival.
Whatever the merits or drawbacks of this idea in principle, it is clear that it is going to be extremely hard for many other EU countries to accept, since it stands directly to disadvantage any of their own citizens who choose to go to live, work and claim in-work welfare benefits in the UK. It is also discriminatory by nationality, which flouts basic elements of the EU treaties.
So the question pro-European Brits are asking is this: what is Mr Cameron’s fall-back position on this demand? What compromise can he be prepared to accept? It is of course normal in negotiations to make bold demands and then compromise. But the worry is that he is setting himself up for defeat on a high-profile issue, one that will then make it very hard to return as the triumphant anti-Brexit campaigner everyone is waiting for.
It is perhaps fortunate for him that the December summit will now focus on terrorism and refugees rather than on Britain. Let us hope that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel takes the occasion as a chance to advise him to tone things down. Otherwise she, and other EU leaders who are under rising pressure at home, will be unable to give Mr Cameron the victory he craves when the deal-making starts in earnest early next year.
This article was originally published on Britaly Post and is reproduced here with permission.
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