Cameron's referendum gun is firing blanks

The Prime Minister cannot negotiate effectively in Brussels and give his MPs what they want at the same time

David Cameron’s position on whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is an entirely rational one. That isn’t to say he is doing the right things at European summits or has the right policy. It is simply an observation about the tricky position he is in, having to negotiate simultaneously in Brussels with fellow heads of government and in Westminster with his own party.

The two sets of demands are incompatible. In Brussels, the Prime Minister wants to influence the evolution of European institutions as they adapt to the single currency crisis. He needs to preserve British influence without signing up to any more political or economic integration. That balancing act gets harder when his continental counterparts think the UK is determined to sabotage their efforts and is, in any case, striding towards the exit. That is precisely the message that would be transmitted by a premature commitment to a referendum regardless of what comes out of current negotiations.

Tory Eurosceptics, meanwhile, argue that the prospect of a referendum will focus the minds of the PM and the rest of the EU, making it clear that the final deal has to be a good one for Britain ...or else. That view rests on the uncertain premise that other European countries desperately want to avoid a British exit. Diplomatic patience with the UK is running thin. Besides, seasoned observers of the Tory right (at home and abroad) recognise that the end game for many MPs is exit no matter what concessions are wrung from Brussels. Why should Angela Merkel or François Hollande offer David Cameron favours on the basis that it might help him control his party and buy a renewed mandate of the UK’s EU membership when they know perfectly well that it won’t?

But Cameron can’t simply tell his party to shut up and wait and see what he has negotiated before demanding a referendum. Tory MPs don’t trust his pledges on Europe and want some indication that the plebiscite they crave will materialise. So he has to indicate that he recognises the need for a vote without actually stating that there will definitely be one. Britain’s membership of the EU really ought to be ratified by a national vote but there isn’t much point asking the question until the terms of that membership are settled and they are now, thanks to uncertainty over the single currency, in flux. That is Cameron’s position and, as I say, it is reasonable given the political constraints he is under.

The most aggressively eurosceptic section of the Tory party, however, is minded to be unreasonable. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense of ‘irrational’. I mean their patience has run out and they don’t want excuses. They feel Cameron has been given the benefit of the doubt on Europe in the past and has been flaky on the subject. (In fact he has been extraordinarily accommodating.) His promises to deliver something – maybe - at an unspecified point in the future are worthless currency in the Conservative ranks.

There is no great diplomatic advantage in sounding off about a referendum; if anything it weakens Britain’s negotiating position. Nor does the vague promise of a referndum do very much for non-aligned voters with other things on their minds. So the only point of even talking about a vote is as a gesture to the Ukip-leaning tendency and the only gesture that will satisfy them – a clear irreversible commitment to an in/out question - is one the Prime Minister cannot make. It is, in political terms, as if Cameron has pulled out a gun to look all macho eurosceptic when everyone knows he is firing blanks.

David Cameron "can’t simply tell his party to shut up and wait and see". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.