David Cameron’s message on the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union over the last few years has been (somewhat) clear – renegotiation of Britain’s place in the group, followed by an in-out referendum by 2017. However, Cameron may have already fallen at the first hurdle, before anything has even been achieved. Leaders from across Europe, including Germany, have all expressed concern at Cameron’s demands for reform of the freedom of movement principle, one of the cornerstones of the entire organisation.
Angela Merkel, an important ally to make renegotiation a reality, has gone as far as saying she would rather see the UK leave the EU than alter this founding concept. Rather than rallying allies to his cause, the Prime Minister has inadvertently alienated the other member states of the EU, which may sink any further chance of substantial change before the next election. The idea that this fundamental principle should or could be altered because one nation of 28 takes issue with it is a fantasy, and Cameron must be deluded to think otherwise.
Surprisingly, even Clegg and Farage both agree that his attempts at renegotiation will not be successful. The problem is that the Prime Minister has taken the wrong course in his quest for change to Britain’s relationship with the EU. Cameron’s approach should be more centred on compromise, rather than treating the EU as a buffet, choosing the bits that you like and opting out of the rest. As the Swedish Prime Minister explained earlier this month: “If you create a common market with common rules and then individual countries change that on their own interests, soon you don’t have a common market”.
If David Cameron was committed to real change in Europe, he would work towards making the EU more accountable and stand up for Britain’s interests in the ongoing controversial TTIP negotiations, rather than making ludicrous demands for change and offering nothing in return. Like the Scottish independence debate, the government as a whole needs to recognise that the positive case for membership needs to be made, else we face sleepwalking out of a common market that provides great benefits; ranging from ERASMUS grants for students studying abroad within the EU, regional funding to provide help and assistance to impoverished areas, to the global standards it sets for human rights.
It should also not go unmentioned that freedom of movement is a two-way street, with roughly two million Britons living elsewhere in the EU. Europe does a lot for us, but it is clear that it is not perfect. However, if you want to implement change to the system, one must be sat firmly at the negotiating table, not with one foot out the door and ready to leave the room. Instead of discussing what the UK should opt out of, the conversation needs to turn to how the European Union can be made fairer for everyone. Only then will we begin to see that change that we need.