When David Cameron sent his letter to Donald Tusk outlining his EU reform demands last week, the media decided that he had a difficult journey ahead of him. He faced either an uphill battle or a tightrope walk. A recent poll suggests that Cameron will have to pull off something heroic in Brussels, as the majority of Brits currently back leaving the EU. But the likelihood is that while it won’t be a walk in the park for the Prime Minister, he should come out on top over the coming months. He will come away from his renegotiation with a deal that he can sell to the British people and he will then have all sorts of weapons in his arsenal as he battles to keep Britain in the EU.
The EU doesn’t want to lose Britain
Britain is a country that adds serious political and economic weight to the EU. The EU could do without losing one of the biggest contributors to its budget. Germany, the EU’s de facto leader would stand to lose an important ally if the UK headed for the exit. EU leaders do not want Brexit to happen, so Cameron should find that they listen to him at the renegotiation table. It is in their interests that he can sell a decent deal to his sceptical public.
Schulz and Juncker are already playing along
Mr Cameron needs to come away from his renegotiation looking as if he has won and the EU has lost. It must look as if the EU has given in and made large concessions to the UK.
Before Cameron has even taken his seat at the renegotiation table, Parliament President Martin Schulz and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have already done him a favour. They immediately rebuffed the fourth demand, (that EU migrants to the UK wait four years before receiving certain benefits). By suggesting that the proposal could be illegal, they have made the Prime Minister’s demands look bolder than they perhaps really are. As a consequence, floating voters who are tempted to leave the EU might have some faith restored in their Prime Minister when he comes home with a deal. Maybe his demands aren’t so tame after all.
There are is a strong, positive pro-EU case that can be made when Cameron returns from the renegotiation
In Britain, the European Union is treated like a referee in a football match. When a referee has a bad game, we notice, and we castigate him for making poor decisions, but when he is getting decisions right, they go unnoticed, and unpraised. In Britain we hear constantly of the EU’s failings, how it is mismanaged, how it ought to be improved. But the many ways in which EU membership benefits our country often go under the radar. Cameron can put these things into the spotlight.
The Economist this week argues that Mr Cameron can deploy a number of positive arguments for Britain remaining in the EU. It points out that the EU is already ‘moving in the right direction’. Cameron can, and should, point out to a British electorate that is underinformed about the EU’s workings, that the Juncker commission is actually cutting red tape. The EU also has some big trade deals on the table. The argument that the EU adds to our national security, which Mr Cameron tried out for the first time on Tuesday is another good one, the newspaper argues. Given the tragic events in Paris last week, national security is at the front of everyone’s minds.
The British want to feel important – they will relish saving the day for the rest of Europe
A very basic gripe that the British have when it comes to the EU is that we are not properly recognised or fairly represented. Britain may be a country of just 64 million, but we are used to being treated as an international heavyweight, right up there with the USA. In truth it’s a long time since the UK was a real superpower, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to cling on to that status. We are in the G7, we have a seat on the UN Security Council and the Head of State in Canada and Australia is still our Queen. In fact, a poll last year found that three times as many British people considered the British Empire something to be proud of rather than something to be ashamed of.
When it comes to Brussels though, the UK finds itself just one of twenty-eight members. On some issues we appear to have the same influence as places like Luxembourg or Belgium. For many people, (including Nigel Farage MEP, who ‘welcomed’ Herman van Rompuy into office by telling him that Belgium is ‘pretty much a non-country’) this is ridiculous. The fact that the Queen of Europe is a German doesn’t exactly help either.
But what the British public does not realise is that the rest of Europe does actually consider us to be important, and does listen to what we say. The British media has thus far had a very inward-looking approach to the Brexit debate: What would Brexit mean for us? On the continent, however, there are many voices saying that the EU needs the UK and should try to accommodate its wishes. Leopold Traugott and Michael Wohlgemuth have both written for Open Europe Berlin about how Brexit would be bad for the EU. If and when the British people hear this, many will be reassured. It’s not exactly common knowledge in Britain that Ireland would be hit, and probably be hit hardest of all the EU member states, by a Brexit. When people realise how keen, even desperate, others are for us not to walk away, the British voters will relish the role of saving the day for everyone else. We just need our ego to be stroked.
The Irish voters
Unlike other EU immigrants living in the UK, the Irish will be given a vote in the referendum. Or rather 600,000 votes. Given the dark warnings about what Brexit would mean for their homeland, they can be counted on to add some serious weight to the campaign to stay in.
The Prime Minister v. the mob
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Dan Hodges argues that the referendum campaign ‘will be a war of the head versus the heart’. This is likely to be true, as Hodges rightly suggests that a sensible campaign to stay in the EU will make the advocates of Brexit, for whom - whether they like it or not - Nigel Farage is their most instantly recognisable figure, look angry and ranty and frankly silly. When faced with a big decision, the British people will always favour common sense - the side that looks sensible, pragmatic and in control. That side is more likely to be one run by a Prime Minister than Nigel Farage. As Prime Minister, David Cameron has the advantage of looking ‘prime ministerial’, as we say…
Scotland – the nuclear option
If the Stronger in Europe campaign does degenerate into an emotional one, there is perhaps no weapon more powerful, or more devastating, that they could deploy than Scotland.
Though the Scottish National Party (SNP) failed in its bid for independence in 2014, they were by no means defeated. At the 2015 general election, the SNP secured 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in House of Commons. This is an incredible achievement, and one which means that the question of Scottish independence has firmly refused to go away.
The pro-EU SNP would gladly seize upon a Brexit vote to secure another independence referendum for Scotland. A situation where the Scottish people vote to stay in the EU, while the UK as a whole votes to leave, would be untenable, they argue. Many commentators agree with this and that the Scots would then vote for independence.
As the English care far more about Britain than they do about the EU, there would be an argument that could be made along the lines of: voting to leave the EU means voting to break up the United Kingdom. Many eurosceptics - often patriotic right-of-centre types - might then conclude that EU membership is a price worth paying to stop their own Union from disintegrating.
This argument is not without its side-effects though, and they are massive. First, it is a painfully negative argument, and second, should it fail to work and the British people vote for Brexit, the SNP will have pretty much had their new independence guaranteed to them. Things will have to be desperate before the Prime Minister utters the word ‘Scotland’.
But he must not be complacent…
While Cameron has all sorts of tools in the box, his opponents will still have some of their own. Brexit campaigners will do their utmost to portray his reforms as weak and tokenistic. They will make the most of the fact that much of the electorate sees a post-Brexit UK as a place made simpler, freed by the shackles of Europe. They will argue that we will be in control of our own affairs and will play down the difficulties and complexities of Britain finding its new place in the world. Some on the Right of the campaign to leave have already seized on the Paris attacks to make the political point that we must have full control of our own borders. And of course, Cameron must convince a public that is at best indifferent to the EU to embrace it.
Edward Aldred has recently graduated from the University of Oxford where he studied German. He is currently working as in intern with Open Europe Berlin.