The Islamic State’s attack in Paris in November was the latest crisis to delay Britain’s bid to renegotiate its membership in the European Union, ahead of a planned referendum on whether to maintain the relationship. First Greece, then refugees, and now terrorism have dominated the diplomatic agenda instead.
On December 3, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron officially abandoned hopes of clinching a deal with other EU leaders at their summit on December 17-18. He is now aiming for an agreement in February. The delay amounts to a serious blow: While the deal itself is unlikely to persuade many undecided Britons to vote to stay in the EU, it is a prerequisite for Cameron to begin campaigning for that outcome. Well-funded anti-EU campaigners, who have plenty of allies in the media, thus have at least two more months, virtually unopposed, to win over wavering Conservatives. With polls showing the two sides in a dead heat, the risk of Brexit is rising by the day.
To be sure, security fears in the wake of the Paris attacks could swing some voters toward deciding to stay in the EU. When people are fearful, they tend to be more risk-averse and thus more likely to stick with the status quo. Combating cross-border terrorism is also an area where the value of EU cooperation ought to be self-evident. In a November 10 speech at Chatham House, Cameron emphasized the benefits of EU membership for Britain’s national security.
But the conflation of terrorism, immigration, and EU membership could also push British voters to reject Europe. Polls suggest that immigration is the top concern among British voters, and the fact that at least one of the Paris terrorists may have entered the EU through Greece posing as a Syrian refugee has accentuated the public’s fears.
That is scarcely a logical reason to leave the EU. The United Kingdom is outside the Schengen Area, so it retains control over its border, and it has opted out of EU asylum policy, so it will not participate in the Union’s resettlement of Syrian refugees. But fear can drive people to pull up the drawbridge. Ominously, in a referendum this month, Danish voters, swayed by similar concerns about refugees and terrorism, rejected proposals for closer cross-border policing cooperation with the EU.
Amid this groundswell of confused emotions, Cameron’s limited objectives for renegotiation, outlined in a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk on November 10, seem almost moot. Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and so do his EU counterparts, but not at any cost. Recognizing the limits of his leverage, Cameron has decided to seek relatively modest changes in four areas: competitiveness, sovereignty, safeguards for non-euro members, and migration.
The first demand – for a Europe that enhances “competitiveness” and reduces business regulation – will be the easiest to secure. His proposal goes with the grain of thinking among EU officials (to the point, regrettably, of echoing their mercantilist language).
Nor should his requests for sovereignty safeguards pose too much of a problem. Some of them are merely symbolic. For example, the EU Treaty commitment to “ever closer union” clearly does not apply to Britain, which has a permanent opt-out from the euro and much else; putting this down in writing should be achievable. Substantive safeguards, such as giving groups of national parliaments the power to veto unwanted EU proposals, are trickier; but here, too, negotiators should be able to finesse a solution.
Cameron’s most important objective is ensuring that euro members cannot gang up on the UK and other non-euro countries. On vital issues where EU decisions do not require unanimity – notably, the single market – the 19 eurozone countries could forge the qualified majority needed to outvote the nine non-euro members. This has not yet happened – not least because countries such as Germany and Greece hardly see eye to eye. But if the eurozone were to become further integrated, with common institutions, it might seek to impose its will on non-euro members. One solution would be a double-majority voting system requiring the consent of both euro and non-euro members, like the one adopted during the creation of the eurozone’s banking union.
Cameron’s most controversial demands regard immigration. Britain wants to deny EU migrants access to welfare benefits – including tax credits for low-paid workers – for four years. But Germany and others object in principle to discriminating against EU citizens, and countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic are vehemently opposed to measures that would disproportionately harm their citizens. One solution may be to deny Britons access to in-work benefits such as tax credits for four years as well.
A deal is feasible. But even if Cameron achieves all of his goals, critics looking for big changes, such as quotas for EU migrants, will remain unsatisfied. And technical issues, such as safeguards for non-euro countries, are unlikely to swing many votes.
Given this, Cameron’s priority should be to complete the renegotiation as quickly as possible, declare victory, and start campaigning vigorously on the broader reasons why Britain should stay in the EU.
Other EU leaders cannot afford to be complacent, either. The EU is already disintegrating, and the risk of Brexit is very real. Unless they strike a convincing deal by February, that risk may well become a reality.
Philippe Legrain is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the London School of Economics' European Institute. From February 2011 to February 2014, he was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission and head of the team that provides President Barroso with strategic policy advice in the Bureau of European Policy Advisers.