When pressed yesterday, David Cameron said that having his planned EU referendum before the end of 2017 would be all the better. He refused to be drawn on what stance he would pick as of today, and denied the chance for cabinet members to take their own personal stance on pro- or anti-Europe in the event of a vote. In his first interview of 2015, Cameron reinforced that his changes would not only make Britain better, but in a not so modest vein, would make Europe better too.
With such a traditional election campaign already in motion, fought between the Conservatives and Labour on the economy and the NHS, how much space will Europe end up occupying? Nigel Farage is sitting quiet so far – he will have to produce a manifesto with much more than just Europe on the table – but how long before he throws his hat into the ring and pressurises Cameron and the election rhetoric into broaching the topic of the EU? If last year gave the first signs of a UKIP building itself up for the election, when several Conservative MPs and many more voters not only flirted with UKIP but deserted the Tories, Cameron’s UKIP nightmare is set to worsen.
Was David Cameron’s logic right when he argued so strongly that by controlling benefits fewer EU migrants would come to this country? Many political commentators dismissed this as overly simplistic, and in any case, is Cameron even right to limit his view of “problematic” migrants as being just from the EU? He may be forgetting a sizeable number of EU migrants who are simply here to work, regardless of benefits. A UCL study from November revealed that European migrants pay out far more in taxes than they receive back in benefits. That is to the tune of £4.96 billion each year since 2011, making it a net contribution of £20 billion so far. Cameron would surely not argue with how well he says the UK has recovered. In this way, the highly skilled and educated migrants that the study says are coming to Britain are no more than taking advantage of the country’s upbeat economic figures and the growing number of jobs on offer.
In the interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Cameron renewed Conservative efforts to bring down Britain’s debt and deficit, in order to, as he says, prevent massive cuts to health such as in Portugal or Greece, where cuts of 16 or 17 per cent have been made, again according to Cameron’s figures. Britain can only ever be strong if Europe is too, and Cameron went on to say that influence, trade links and access to European markets from being in the union are invaluable for the country’s recovery.
He later outlined his current thinking on benefits for EU migrants: no unemployment benefit full stop, migrants would be kicked out if they can’t find a job within six months, and tax credits would only come after residing in the UK for four years and paying enough into the system. Cameron was asked several times over on where he stands on a cap on EU migrants – it sounded like he had let that idea go, but he didn’t say it. How Cameron phrased it was: “Those things [change in welfare system for EU migrants] I believe would achieve a reduction in, in migration…” It is a not-so-convincing line of argument.
“The most important thing of all is being able to make changes to the welfare system,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “The key areas are safeguarding the single market, getting out of ever-closer union, being able to veto regulations and a package of measures on welfare.”
David Cameron has put a two-year window on the table in which he wishes to re-negotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, an ever closer relationship which Cameron says he wants to get out of. This would require treaty change, and therefore a vote, which would have to be agreed unanimously between the union’s 28 member states. Angela Merkel a year ago ruled out retouching any of the treaties.
When David Cameron sits down with Angela Merkel later on in the week, the topic of Europe will be needless to say highest on the list. The Euro at a nine-year low against the dollar, the possibility of a Greek exit, so say some, if or indeed when, Syriza are elected into the Greek government at the end of January, the likelihood of quantitative easing starting within the 19-member currency, and last but not least, Putin’s tactics this year in Ukraine. All in all, it is a perilous mood that David Cameron has to contend with as Europe – and the UK’s biggest trading partner – enters into 2015.
What to watch out for then when Angela Merkel arrives in London on Wednesday … Will she be set back by the anti-EU feeling that there is in the UK, at the same time when she is having to confront right-wing forces, albeit less than comparable to UKIP, that nonetheless threaten relations between different ethnic groups? Newspapers are calling it a “love-hate relationship”, whilst another says “Angela Merkel underestimates how toxic Europe is for David Cameron’s UK voters”. This might just be the final time David Cameron and Angela Merkel can share their grievances together as heads of government, and neither is known for mincing their words on the topic of Europe at least. Yet for all of the worrying, David Cameron can rest easy in knowing he’s not the leader who will be micro-managing Europe’s precarious year ahead.