The British prime minister, David Cameron, finally secured agreement Friday from fellow European Union leaders on changes to the United Kingdom’s membership of that union.
With this deal in hand, the prime minister briefed his cabinet Saturday and then announced that a referendum on continued UK membership in the EU would take place on June 23.
As the pro- and con-EU campaigns now lumber into action, what is the significance of Mr. Cameron’s agreement with Brussels, and what are the prospects for the unity of the EU?
Cameron told the British people:
And I will never say that our country couldn’t survive outside Europe. We are Great Britain – we can achieve great things. That is not the question in this referendum.
The question is will we be safer, stronger and better off working together in a reformed Europe or out on our own. I believe we will be safer in a reformed Europe, because we can work with our European partners to fight cross border crime and terrorism.
I believe Britain will be stronger in a reformed Europe because we can play a leading role in one of the world’s largest organisations from within, helping to make the big decisions on trade and security that determine our future.
And I believe we will be better off in a reformed Europe because British businesses will have full access to the free trade single market, bringing jobs, investment and lower prices.
The reforms agreed upon have been a long time in the making, and while some will certainly argue that the changes do not go far enough, the prime minister did secure certain agreements.
The deal focused on four main areas: cutting bureaucracy; moving away from an “ever-closer union”; providing assurances to non-euro members that they would not become second-class citizens of the union; and, finally, slashing government benefits for migrants.
The first was agreed with little opposition, the idea of increasing competitiveness is an easy sell. The second has always been somewhat controversial, bearing in mind the founding principles of the European Union essentially saw the project as drawing member states into an ever tighter association.
But the United Kingdom was granted the concession that Cameron sought, whereby it will be granted an exemption from the notion of “ever-closer union,” the ability to opt out.
The third – guarantees for non-euro members – met with fierce resistance from the French, but in the end there was agreement that there would be no discrimination against countries not using the euro for its currency.
Moreover, as Cameron stated, “We have permanently protected the pound and our right to keep it. For the first time, the EU has explicitly acknowledged it has more than one currency.”
The final piece of the agreement was, in many ways, the most delicate. And yet, for British voters, it touched on perhaps the most pertinent issue: immigration.
Cameron wanted to withdraw certain benefits from EU migrants, in an effort to stem the influx that has thwarted his immigration targets.
Some of the eastern European countries took exception to this, but in spite of their reservations, a compromise was reached, the most significant aspect of which was the “emergency brake,” which will allow in-work benefits for migrants to be reduced for the next seven years.
Specifically, while the UK had already made unemployment benefit unavailable to EU migrants, these new measures affect benefits available to people who are working, essentially forms of state assistance (such as tax credits) to help those on low income.
The prime minister’s hope is that this restriction will make the UK a less desirable destination for EU migrants.
This is the essence of the deal that Cameron has secured for his country, but will it be enough to persuade his fellow Britons that they should remain in the European Union?
“Admittedly, his deal is not a total overhaul of the European Union,” writes Dan Hodges in the right-leaning Telegraph. “But it’s a far more significant recalibration of Britain’s position within that Union than his critics were predicting.”
And on the left, The Guardian is inclined to agree, calling the agreement a “practical package” and saying that, “on balance”, they would now vote to stay in Europe.
And what of the voters themselves? In a YouGov poll carried out for The Times at the start of February, about a quarter of voters were determined to vote to stay in the EU, a quarter determined to get out and 47 percent as yet undecided.
In a compilation of the last six polls leading up to Feb. 16, respondents wanting to remain in the EU constituted 51 percent, and those keen to break away were at 49 percent.
Should the UK vote to leave the EU, one possible repercussion is a fresh vote on Scottish independence, meaning that breaking away from the European Union could, in turn, lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom itself.
As for the EU, Dahrendorf Fellow on Europe-North America Relations Tim Oliver, at the London School of Economics IDEAS department, sees three possible outcomes of a so-called Brexit:
“[The EU] could integrate further, strengthening the power of the Eurozone and Germany; it could unravel, Britain triggering some form of domino effect that leads to further withdrawals; or it could muddle through as it has in the past, unified but strained.”
At this point, the vote is too close to call, and as the campaign machines grind into gear, they still have everything to play for.
But the prime minister has chosen his side, and while many of his own party will be campaigning against him, Cameron will do all he can to persuade the British public of the benefits of staying in the European Union.
“The British people must now decide whether to stay in this reformed European Union or to leave,” said Cameron. “This will be a once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of our country.”