One of the major problems with a second consecutive prime ministerial term in office must be that there is no honeymoon period the second time around. David Cameron is in the process of discovering this, as pressure on him appears to be growing on the issue of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union (EU). He is sticking to his pledge to hold an in-out referendum on the subject by the end of 2017 and although the UK Independence Party (UKIP), with only one seat in Parliament, will be exerting most of its pressure from outside, Mr. Cameron has plenty of backbenchers whose political views would be indistinguishable from those of Atilla, the Hun who would amply make up for any dearth that the UKIP may feel in its ranks.
Mr. Cameron knows this well and has set to work immediately. The plan is to get the EU to agree to some concessions that will make the EU pill less bitter to swallow and that hopefully this will make it a wee bit more likely to get a positive vote allowing the UK to continue in the EU.
At the top of Mr. Cameron’s agenda is the attempt to get the EU to change its rules so that immigration from the EU is somehow curtailed. He aims to do this by getting the EU to agree to a proposal that immigrants from the EU countries to the UK would not qualify for UK social security benefits for the first four years of their stay in the UK. This, the Tories hope, would reduce immigration to Britain from other EU countries, a hope based on the assumption that most EU migrants come to the UK to scrounge on benefits.
The early portents on this score are not very good as the German Chancellor, Ms. Angela Merkel has fired the first salvo stating quite unequivocally that the principle of free movement within the EU is one of the fundamental principles of the EU and hence non-negotiable. The Germans have never been good diplomats which is perhaps why they have ended up on the wrong side in the two World Wars, but in their defence it has to be said that they are not alone among EU leaders in seeing this as one of the basic features of the EU. Given their reaction, the original Tory dream of being allowed powers to impose some sort of ceiling on the number of EU migrants coming into Britain seems like a non-starter. Other British demands include an exclusion from the EU’s commitment to ever closer union and the ability of national parliaments to work together to block legislation.
The immigration issue has acquired increased impetus of late with latest figures showing that over the year 2014, net immigration into the UK has been 318,000 which is much higher than the figure that most Tory voters seem to have in mind and records a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. The figure has been made public barely a fortnight after the elections for which the government must be thanking its lucky stars, or the abilities of its election managers – perhaps the latter for there is no evidence to show that the Tories are particular believers in astrology. The government itself has not given a figure on what sort of net immigration numbers it is aiming at, but has said that it proposes to bring it down to “tens of thousands”; at the moment it is in the hundreds of thousands, so one would presume that it would be some figure less than 100,000.
The net immigration figure is the difference between the numbers of British citizens who migrate to other countries and those immigrating into the country. Among those coming into the UK, 268,000 were from the EU which, under the current rules, the UK government can do nothing about. This figure records a rise of 67,000 from the previous year, with the number of Romanians and Bulgarians doubling to 46,000. On the other hand, the number of migrants from outside the EU rose by 42,000 to 290,000, although this figure does not include some categories like asylum seekers. Interestingly, of these there were 25,020, the highest contribution coming from Eritrea and the second highest coming from Pakistan (2421).
The current focus on immigration means that irrespective of whether Mr. Cameron can get the EU to accept his proposals, it is almost certain that immigration from non-EU countries will be tightened even further. This might make it even tougher for students to come from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh and will very likely mean even more stringent penalties for overstaying illegally. One of the things being mooted is that such people will be required to pay back any money they have earned during their period of overstay, although it is far from clear how on earth the government is going to determine this figure given that such people are not part of the formal economy – indeed they cannot be for as soon as they try to get a national insurance number they are likely to be caught out. Without that, they cannot open a bank account or pay tax.
Undaunted by the problems facing him, Mr. Cameron has set off for Latvia where the first round of “renegotiation” with the EU are going to take place. The summit in Latvia is actually for the EU to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the repercussions thereof in some other countries of the former Soviet Union like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova, but at the moment nothing could be further from the minds of most British people than the fortunes of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. As far as people here are concerned, they could all take a running jump – in fact most Britons would see that as a very positive option as it would do away with the possibility of any future immigration from these countries!
The fact of the matter is that Britain’s views regarding Europe are radically different from that of the rest of Europe. The rest of Europe sees the EU as a political and economic union while the UK sees it only as an economic union. In this, it risks driving itself adrift even from its closest ally, the US, who is supportive of the idea of an enlargement of the EU with more countries coming into the EU’s political fold as that will draw an increasing number of countries of the former Soviet Union away from the Soviet umbrella. For Britain, this enlargement means more poorer European countries coming into the EU which means more immigrants.
The EU referendum will have far reaching repercussions on Britain’s internal unity as well for if England votes to get out of the EU, as it may, Scotland certainly will not, thus precipitating a further crisis within the UK. With the Scottish Nationalists so predominantly the power in Scotland, this could easily result in another Scottish referendum and this time around, given the backdrop of a negative EU vote in England, the Scottish vote would be almost bound to go the other way.
There are those who describe these as interesting times but perhaps ‘worrying’ would be a more appropriate word to use. Especially for David Cameron whose legacy would end up looking like something the cat brought in if, on his watch, the UK were to break up not just from the EU, but within itself as well. These are pretty dramatic scenarios, but somehow, at the moment, they appear to be ones that can by no means be ruled out.•