A Victory for Cameron on Europe Vote, but Will Public Agree?

The European Council this week published a draft proposal aimed at convincing the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed satisfaction with the deal hammered out with Council President Donald Tusk, but Britain’s politicians and public remain divided ahead of a vote on the fate of EU membership, which could take place as early as June. The fraught relationship is entering a new and crucial phase.

This week’s draft decision attempts to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with its European partners and will be considered by Council members at a summit from February 18-19th. Cameron has repeatedly campaigned for remaining in the EU if he obtains “a fair deal for Britain” from negotiating partners, even though his country has long enjoyed opt-outs from many of the bloc’s obligations.

The proposal now on the table acknowledges this, underlining that the UK is already entitled to not adopt the euro or participate in the passport-free Schengen area agreement, and that it can chose whether or not to adopt EU measures regarding justice, freedom, and security.

The draft goes on to delivers redress against several of Cameron’s key concerns requiring larger changes in EU arrangements. In the financial arena, it outlaws discrimination by eurozone countries against the functioning of the European single market, or by non-eurozone countries against the functioning of the single currency. It also gives assurances that non eurozone countries such as the UK will not be excluded from Council deliberations, even though they are not allowed to vote on euro issues. In other words, there will be no “ganging up” on Britain.

The section on sovereignty is potentially difficult to interpret and will likely draw fire not only from euro-skeptics, but also federally minded EU member states. It declares that references in EU treaties to “ever closer union” are not equivalent to seeking political integration, or to be used as a basis for extending legislation.

Immigration is certain to prove the most difficult area to finesse at the meeting later this month. Restricting rights for EU immigrants to the UK is clearly discriminatory and might potentially lead to measures being taken against Britons resident in other EU countries. However, the draft seems to meet the majority of Cameron’s demands in this area and recognizes that social benefits are different in each member state.

If it can clear the European hurdle, the deal’s ability to win over the British public will then be severely tested. A poll out this week gave the leaving, or Brexit, vote a four point lead over the alternative of staying in the EU.

There are three key factors that explain the country’s agitation for change. The first is the persistence of an almost sacred doctrine of the sovereignty of Britain’s Parliament, as articulated by writer and journalist Walter Bagehot in the 19th century. The British see the EU as being uniquely antagonistic to parliamentary sovereignty, as illustrated by constant comments from politicians and the media about “unelected officials in Brussels.”

The second is the UK’s lingering attachment to the English speaking world, in particular the United States and the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These are seen as constituting a unique bastion of Anglo-Saxon values, while supposedly ensuring Britain will be able to trade with and influence a geographically wider area than exists in Europe. While there is some validity to this argument, it should be noted that many of these countries now support the UK remaining in the EU, after opposing its original membership.

The third and final factor is that that, whereas the UK was economically behind the other major economies of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, the reverse has been the case since the end of the recession that began in 2008.

Depending on the currency of these factors among British voters, there are a number of lingering questions on the long-term effects of the coming referendum: Will a vote either way solve the problem for at least a generation? If the remaining in Europe vote is successful, will the UK’s pursuit of more protections for its finance industry cause further eurozone destabilization? If the alternative prevails, will Scotland again seek independence? Above all, what would be the repercussions for the UK-European relationship if Britain were to leave, particularly around trading arrangements?

It seems that a vote in favor of Britain remaining in the EU will provide some temporary euphoria for the UK’s European integration supporters, and for the bloc as a whole. The withdrawal of a major partner with a pragmatic view of world affairs and a firm grip on the technicalities of global trade would otherwise be a major, and possibly fatal, blow to the European project.

Nonetheless, the anti-EU camp will not instantly disappear and the UK will likely remain the recalcitrant European. The issues that trouble the country will not be solved at a stroke. Treaty change is impractical and lengthy even if launched soon after the referendum. Political decisions in the European Council will also be denounced as non-binding by the euroskeptic camp, even though it is hard to see that the European Court of Justice would interpret such decisions in this manner.

If the referendum goes against the UK remaining in the EU, the immediate aftermath will be a period of great uncertainty. Scotland will likely push for another referendum on independence because it is clear that its constituents support remaining in the EU. The position of Ireland with its common land border and residence and voting privileges regarding the UK will also be in question. And links between the UK and EU—whether related to trade or other cooperative programs—are likely to take several years to either uncouple or re-engineer, during which time investment prospects in the UK economy will suffer.

The scenario that seems to be unfolding is that, in the event that the UK leaves the EU, a modified form of European Economic Area arrangement such as the one with Norway will be negotiated. This would prevent Britain facing tariffs and other restrictions. But, as has been well noted by academics and pro-European politicians, this would mean the UK would have to adhere to all the single market rules, while having no say in making them. At the same time, there would still be a British budgetary contribution to EU coffers. To date, the Brexit campaign has offered no concrete solutions to this dilemma.

That said, a decision to leave the EU, while likely still an overall negative for the UK, might not be the disaster that some pessimists posit. The UK economy is resilient enough and the country’s historical and practical links strong enough that pragmatic solutions will be found in the longer term.

The UK is at a similar crossroads as it was in 1975 when facing a referendum on membership of the European Economic Community instigated by then prime minister Harold Wilson. The European project is not acceptable to a large proportion of the population. This is an issue that will not vanish and needs to be resolved. The draft decision out this week should at least convince the British public that the EU is listening to their concerns, but doubts over its ability to respond may still win out.

Richard Lewis is a Senior Research Fellow, Migration and Diversity, at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel.