House of Lords warned EU will punish UK if it votes for Brexit

Following Thursday's Brexit vote, the UK appears to be in the most turbulent period in its recent political history. [Gordon Wrigley/Flickr]

The UK’s House of Lords has been warned that Britain will be made an example of by the European Union, if it votes to quit the bloc in the upcoming referendum.

Furious EU nations will force a draconian Brexit deal on the UK in a bid to deter other countries from leaving, the House of Lords Select Committee, which scrutinises British EU policy, was told in Brussels today (13 January).

“My concern is that if we vote to leave that the deal we’d be given would be such that no one else would want to leave. We would bear the brunt of the angry other 27 EU countries,” Catherine Bearder, a British Liberal Democrat MEP said.

The peers were in Brussels to quiz the Commission’s Brexit supremo Jonathan Faull, meet Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, and European politicians, as part of its inquiry into the poll on EU membership.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to get changes to Brussels’ rules on migrant benefits, the single market, an exemption from closer union with the EU and less red tape, as the price for campaigning to stay in the bloc. He won last May’s election, promising an in/out vote by the end of 2017.

A deal on the reforms will be put in writing by early February for EU leaders to discuss later that month at the 18 February European Council, a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.

The most controversial and difficult demand is Cameron’s push for a four-year ban on migrants’ benefits. It would apply to all migrants, including those from inside the EU.

Lord Jay of Ewelme told EURACTIV the behind closed-doors meeting with Faull confirmed that benefits was “the big question”. Discussions were ongoing to try and find a protocol to allow any changes to take place, without EU treaties having to be altered immediately, he said.

>>Read: Commission’s Brexit boss ‘bans’ press from UK parliamentary hearing

Glenis Willmott, a British Labour MEP, said, “I think we are well on the way to an agreement. People are desperate for us to stay. Solutions will be found apart from the four years on the benefits but that is because of legality of it.”

Ashley Fox, a British Conservative MEP, warned, “When it comes to the referendum, the biggest issue will be migration.

“The way our tax and welfare system works attracts migrants from the EU. If we reduce it, we will go some way to reduce this attraction.”

Fox said the vote would come down to a gut feeling among voters on economic security and migration. The “remain” camp had a stronger argument on the economy but a weaker one on migration, he said.

Bearder said that leaving the EU would not reduce migration to the UK.

Special case?

Today’s hearing was held in the European Parliament. The lords heard that many Europeans were sick and tired of the British demanding special treatment.

“People do feel that the Brits see themselves as a special case. In the European Parliament people say that all the time,” said Willmott.

“It does impact on how people see us. They don’t think we have done it in the right way by using the threat of exit. Having said that they do want us to stay.”

Bearder echoed that during the hour-long session. But Ashley Fox, a British Conservative MEP said reforms were only under discussions because of the referendum, which must be held before the end of 2017.

“The EU reforms at glacial speed. Without the threat of a referendum, nothing would happen, he said. “Of course they [Europeans] don’t like it but, forgive me, tough.”

Taming the Eurosceptics

Both Bearder and Willmott said the majority of European politicians believed the referendum was not about reforming the EU, but taming the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party.

“The majority of people in the European Parliament see it as something the PM uses to manage his own party. It is seen like that almost across the board,” said Willmott.

Bearder and Willmott said their parties would campaign for Britain to stay in the EU, regardless of whether Cameron secured the reforms.

Fox said he would decide how to vote once he had seen how successful Cameron was in the push for change.

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.

Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.

But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.

>>Read our LinksDossier: The UK's EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?

  • 18 February 2016: EU leaders to discuss Cameron's reform demands.
  • June 2016: Rumoured favoured date of Cameron for holding the referendum.
  • End of 2017: Deadline for referendum.
  • July-Dec. 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.

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