The relationship between the UK and the European Union has all the ingredients for a good drama: there is love, hate, arguments, reconciliations and even an old French man. General De Gaulle would surely not be pleased with the present situation.
As a foreigner, Britain’s relationship with the EU has hardly troubled me. As a researcher focusing on Justice and Home Affairs, I found the UK’s special arrangements in the area fascinating. They were the living proof that the EU was able to accommodate all its members, working on the basis of what jargon-lovers call ‘variable geometry’. I must confess, outside JHA, my knowledge of Britain’s approach to the EU was very much restricted to Sir Humphrey’s memorable explanation in old-time British series ‘Yes, Minister’. I moved from Brussels to London last October to find that, what I thought was just a clever line in a good TV show was, actually, much more than that: Britain’s relationship with the EU was far more troubled than what I (and many of those working in Brussels) had imagined. The problems, as in any good drama, are of essence and very much linked to feelings. Being an island, the UK has historically feel somehow disconnected (and threatened) by the continent. And it has its reasons: for better or worse, the UK is one of a kind in many areas, from its legal system to its very own way of driving. The UK is a traditionally liberal country surrounded by rather interventionist states. Do not even think of suggesting that Brits should have IDs, too. So the UK has always feared that more European integration meant that Britain would lose its spirit, everything that makes it a great country. Until now, then, all the drama was based on these deep existential issues. But with the rise of anti-European party UKIP, and the outcome of the general elections being as unpredictable as it has ever been, the problems of essence (of policy) have become a problem of tactics (of politics).
David Cameron has been struggling for some time now- to please his Eurosceptic backbenchers and counter UKIP’s rising popularity, he has been making more and more concessions on Europe. Some still remember how, as freshly elected leader of the Tories, Cameron withdrew the Conservatives from the EPP group in the European Parliament. This unprecedented move showed, very early on, that David Cameron was ready to do what it took to be Prime Minister, regardless of any strategic thinking on Europe. Fast forward ten years, and this has gotten even edgier: Cameron has offered to renegotiate UK’s relationship with Europe, more specifically on free movement and migration. If he does not get what he wants, he has announced a referendum, to be held by the end of 2017. What is dangerous about Cameron’s approach to Europe is that, in the words of Charles Grant, director of the CER, ‘is all tactics and no strategy’. This lack of strategy makes very difficult to predict what the UK’s relationship with Europe will look like in the short-medium term.
Labour is not a better option for pro-Europeans, at least in its current form: Ed Miliband has purposely stayed away from the topic of Europe during the whole campaign. Knowing that migration is featuring prominently during electoral debates, Labour has also suggested that they will seek to renegotiate EU rules on access to benefits. Some fear that, if Labour win, a Tory party not constrained by power (and with a more Eurosceptic leader than David Cameron) will become much tougher on the EU and campaign for a Brexit by the next elections (in 2020). That would be catastrophic for the European cause. So as for now, all big parties are positioned against UKIP in that they want the UK to stay in Europe. Both Tories and Labour believe that a reform is necessary, but only the Tories have put forward the idea of a referendum if such reform is not achieved. In his 2013 Bloomberg speech, Cameron promised to campaign for a UK in Europe, should a referendum be finally held. It is not clear whether he will fulfil his promise.
The general mood in London is that, regardless of who wins, a referendum is now inevitable. Prospects are gloomy for the UK and Europe. I am hoping that the final chapter of this drama is still to be scripted and that it will include a happy ending. After all, we all want the UK and Europe to live happily ever after.
Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform working on Justice and Home Affairs, with a particular focus on migration, internal security, criminal law and police and judicial cooperation.
Camino holds a Master’s Degree in Law by the University of Oviedo (Spain), an Exchange Diploma in Legal Studies by Cardiff University (UK) and a Master of Arts on EU Political and Administrative Studies by the College of Europe (Belgium), where she specialised in Justice and Home Affairs with a master thesis devoted to the influence of the SWIFT case on the politics and institutional structure of counter-terrorism policies in the EU.
Camino Mortera-Martinez can be followed on Twitter at @CaminoMortera.