After 30 hours of negotiations at the European Council on Feb. 18-19, British Prime Minister David Cameron could claim some measure of victory in terms of the new concessions he obtained from the European Union (EU) to make Britain’s special status even more favorable. It is clear that he had to appear victorious in order to impress his electorate and convince Eurosceptics in his country to change their mind and vote against the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union — dubbed ‘Brexit’ — at the June 23 referendum. Cameron is obliged to hold the referendum as part of his election platform.
As he left, Cameron declared “I do not like Brussels.” A French analyst commented that was a strange way to convince his own people not to leave Europe. Although the talks lasted through the night, the process was, in fact, surprisingly rapid. There are two possible reasons for this: Cameron believed England’s economy would lose more from a ‘Brexit’ than Europe, so he had to be flexible in his demands. Furthermore, the British prime minister was fortunate to benefit from the presence of a Europe busy with more serious problems such as the migrant crisis or the surge of populism.
Since 1973 — the date of its entry into the European Union under the pro-European government of then Prime Minister Edward Heath — the United Kingdom has had one foot in Europe and one foot out: it is not part of the Eurozone, nor of the Schengen space and it did not adhere most of the fundamental principles inscribed in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. For a long time, it benefited from a special status within the EU.
The demands Cameron just presented to the European Council were therefore intended to reinforce that different treatment regarding social benefits for migrant workers, independence of ‘The City’ (the financial center of London) from European financial regulations, refusal of a “Supra State” infringing upon British sovereignty, and the right to refuse further integration of the EU.
The debate over a possible ‘Brexit’ is asymetric. For England, Europe is basically a profitable market for more than 40 percent of its exports. For the core and early members of the EU – Germany, France, Benelux, Italy – the arduous construction of Europe over decades since the 1950 European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC) is an ideal and has long-term objectives.
For Europe, to part with England would have dangerous consequences by creating precedents regarding the other 27 EU members’ requests. Cameron’s suggestion to use “red cards” to give the right to national parliaments to oppose the decisions made in Brussels if they could gather 54 percent of the votes was turned down, lest it lead toward the unraveling of the European structure.
The reactions and the final comments of the main players at the negotiations were mixed. Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, called the text of the agreement “honest.” Donald Tusk, Head of the European Council, approved “a done deal.” Germany’s President Angela Merkel was putting all her energy to block a Brexit, overlooking the big English deficit (larger than that of France) and departing from the harsh words she had for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the height of the Greek debt crisis.
French President François Hollande acted as a mediator during the proceedings and also fought against the Brexit. Cameron was taken aback by Hollande’s determination to set as a red line a right of veto by Britain over the decisions taken by the Eurozone. England has only a “droit de regard” (a right to look), in the same way as the other 19 non-Eurozone members.
Cameron does not want “The City” to submit itself to European regulations and lose its beneficial tax position. The “single bookrule” of the Central European Bank (ECB) should apply to Britain without making any exception, stressed Hollande. However, England is obtaining a “discount” on the funds it paid the ECB to help with the Eurozone crisis. A letter, co-signed by the 200 largest British companies, warned Cameron against ‘Brexit.’ When the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced he was a partisan of “Brexit,” the English pound lost 2.4 percent against the US dollar – its lowest level since 2009.
For 20 years, from 1993 to 2013, the foreign-born population in Britain has more than doubled from 3.8 to 8.3 million. In the London area, 39 percent of the population is of foreign origin. A few thousand workers from Eastern Europe were expected but, in fact, 850,000 Poles arrived. This explains why Britain is protecting itself from the recent waves of immigration .
By a bilateral agreement signed at Le Touquet in 2003, England and France placed the border at the Gare du Nord railroad station in Paris. This is where all the border controls take place before boarding the Eurostar train to London. But the Le Touquet agreement did not foresee the 2015 and 2016 arrival of close to 6,000 migrants on the French side of the English Channel (called La Manche by the French) near Calais. What if ‘Brexit’ became a reality? Would the border move to Dover on the English coast? That is perhaps a strong argument against ‘Brexit’!
A frequently acrimonious attitude between England and Europe does not reflect the deep ties they share. Many British people own houses or come for the weekend to le Touquet. Go to a town market in a Perigord village and one is surrounded by people speaking English. For the two million British people living on the continent, ‘Brexit’ is a very real threat.
About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.