Brexit and the ‘Brussels crumbs’ Cameron brought home

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

David Cameron [European Commission]

Melanie Sully wonders what did David Cameron actually bring back from his late night session at the European Council.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist working as Director of the Vienna Institute for Go-Governance. This opinion piece was first published in German in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.

Whilst the Brits have mutated to become Europe’s best cherry pickers and the Germans confirmed their fondness for fried chips, we can reflect on what many in the UK see as Brussels crumbs.

So what actually did Cameron return with from late night sessions at the European Council apart from those three dirty shirts?

A decision by all 28 member states to address the concerns of one country forms the basis for the June referendum. Ah you will say, more opt outs, more special treatment for the delinquent. Curiously though it was the EU itself that was at pains  to tailor this to the UK in an effort to dodge the more gargantuan task of EU reform. Also it wanted to deter copycats from other countries who might jump on the cherry bandwagon.

Many Eurosceptics in the UK would have loved to have seen a thorough reform of the EU itself including the holy cow the common agricultural policy but any mention of that sends the French into a spin. And sure the UK has its opt outs on Euro and Schengen where the Member States themselves right now are having second thoughts.

Still in the package is a recognition that not all states are the same which is not so logical or self-evident as you might think. The UK has a unique social security system and in 2004 along with Ireland and Sweden, waived the transitional rules and opened the labour market to new EU migrant workers.

Since returning from Brussels, Cameron has lost a good friend, his Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, to the Brexit camp, a high brow with a penchant for cutting analysis, and the populist London mayor, Boris Johnson.

Gove has questioned the legal basis of the deal arguing that it is simply an agreement between the Member States but as yet there is no treaty change and that would require more than three shirts and a long weekend in Brussels. Johnson seems like Oliver Twist to be asking for more. Does he imagine, if polls point to Brexit, that the big guns from Europe, Juncker, Merkel and Tusk will descend on London with a “vow” similar to that made to the Scots before their referendum?

A close result for Brexit would augur the swift demise of Cameron who would lose the confidence of his cabinet (the Thatcher effect). His successor has to send a letter to Brussels to start the withdrawal process. And what if he or she doesn’t? After bye-bye David, what happens then? It could be the Neverendum with new negotiations, think many sceptics. Cameron is trying to make clear No means No.

The Commission has indicated there is reason to apply a so-called emergency brake in the UK because of a peculiar situation. But some provisions are dependent on other organs in the EU like the European Parliament also seeing it that way and the very premise could be challenged. Is it really the case that the UK social security system is on the brink of collapse because of migrant workers or could it just be that it is starved of cash by the government? Such legal uncertainties could confuse voters and prompt them to opt for Brexit. Generally right now knowledge and trust on European issues is pretty miserable.

Popular votes have become the norm in the UK sanctioning major transfers of power as with the Independence vote for Scotland. It tore apart friends, families and almost the country. The vote was to take the issue off the agenda “for a generation”. But the opposite has transpired.

The last time the UK voted on leaving the European project was over 40 years ago. Most Brits therefore under 60 have never had a chance to vote on joining a club whose rules have fundamentally changed. Are we to assume that it will be another half century before the “perfidious Albion” gets the idea to quit again? This time it might not be so long even assuming Brits decide to stay put. The package has to be implemented. And that, as Hamlet would say, apparently a favourite play of Donald Tusk, “is the rub”.

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