How the UK debates the EU

There is an embarrassment of riches that could be discussed this week, even under this heading: from ACTA to referenda, the issue of the EU seems to be gaining media profile, if not public interest.

However, I will focus here on Cameron’s statements about removing free movement for Greek nationals in the event of a withdrawal from the Euro.  This seems to encapsulate much of what is wrong about the way the UK approaches the EU and why it encounters so much resistance to its positions, even when they make good sense (NB: this is not one of those occasions, but still the point stands).

Firstly, it conflates two largely unrelated issues: the Euro and immigration.  The latter has become a much more sensitive issue over the past decade and successive governments have suffered at the hands of the opposition on the charge that most immigration is uncontrollable, because it comes from EU member states.  I cannot think of any one else talking about large-scale emigration from Greece in the case of a Grexit, so it would appear to fall into the same camp as the referendum issue; namely, talking tough to sound tough, rather than to actually do it.

Secondly, it doesn’t really make sense as a policy position.  On a purely logical basis, any Greeks leaving the country would be taking their Euros with them and would be more likely to be high SES individuals, two things that HMG says it wants in immigrants.  Moreover, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination at all to think that the Commission would launch proceedings against any limitation of free movement, which would cost the UK more political capital.

Thirdly, it constrains the UK in future debates, by setting out a marker that must be addressed.  If a Grexit does happen, then that might be useful for the UK, but is very unlikely to be the main issue to be dealt with.  If it doesn’t, then it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth about the sincerity of the UK to what they have long claimed to be at the heart of the value of European integration: think about how all budget framework negotiations are conditioned by Thatcher’s handbagging at Fountainebleau in the 1980s.

Finally, it demonstrates the continuing failure of the UK to find a constructive line on the Eurozone crisis.  The main wonder is that Cameron hasn’t been marginalised even more than he has, with his repeated calls for the Eurozone to ‘sort itself out’, without coming with a constructive proposal about how to achieve this.  To say that Eurozone governments have to take the lead completely ignores both the deep interlinkage between Eurozone and EU and the knock-on effects of any withdrawal or collapse. Even the US government seems to have realised this to a greater effect than the UK, which seems hampered by backbench opinion and a fear about a public backlash.

Just as Eurozone governments have lost too much time hoping that the crisis will just go away, so too has the UK. As the past three years (including last week’s European Council) have shown, that simply doesn’t fly and we need to change that debate.