The end of December is, traditionally, a time for both looking back at the year that has been and looking forward to the year yet to come. But, judging by his comments in Europe yesterday, David Cameron is doing much more of the latter. For him, it’s all about 2014.
First, though: the comments themselves. Our Prime Minister made a particularly tough-sounding threat in his battle for migration controls in the EU. If ways weren’t found to “slow down access to each other’s labour markets,” he suggested, then Britain might be prepared to veto further enlargements of the EU. That would, in theory, prevent countries such as Serbia and Albania from joining the union.
And that wasn’t the only combative thing that Cameron said during the two-day summit in Brussels. He also railed against a European defence force, and challenged the EU’s stance on fracking – although it’s his words on migration that really catch the ear.
Why has Cameron become so forceful about the issue of migration? The answer’s pretty clear, and it lies in 2014. Next month, as any fule kno, the immigration controls on Romanians and Bulgarians will be lifted. In May, there’ll be the European elections. The Prime Minister is trying to both pacify his simmering backbenchers and hold off the UKIP threat.
Is there more to his words than that? I suspect not. The fact is, a threat to veto enlargement is a threat to do nothing for ages. It sounds tough, but it doesn’t yet have much practical application, as the FT explains well in its report:
“EU foreign ministers on Tuesday agreed formally to start membership talks with Serbia in January, the strongest signal since the Balkanisation of former Yugoslavia that Belgrade has made progress in normalising its ties with Kosovo.
Although it is likely to take several years before Serbia become the 29th EU member state, most national governments are in no rush to expedite the process.
‘We are not going to see any country, with the possible exception of Iceland, joining the EU any time soon,’ said a senior EU official.’”
This approach is, as The Independent suggests today, something of a gamble for Cameron. Yes, it may pay electoral dividends in the near-future – though I have my doubts about that. But by rushing to make threats that have little immediate threat involved, the Prime Minister risks alienating other European leaders, or having them take him less seriously.
Indeed, it’s telling that Cameron’s call for stricter transitional controls was met with “silence” from other European nations yesterday. Not even Germany – which, along with Holland and Austria, is regarded as a potential ally on these matters – rallied behind him, which makes this passage from Andrew Grice’s latest column even more piquant:
“Crucially, his strategy on Europe is too dependent on one person – Angela Merkel. The re-elected German Chancellor, the most powerful person at the EU table, would like the UK to remain at it. Tory MPs have got the message that she will go to the wire to secure enough concessions for Mr Cameron to win a referendum vote to stay in the EU club. But German officials tell me the Brits are misreading the mood music. ‘She will try to help, up to a point, but she is not going to unpick the [EU] treaties. Some people in London are getting carried away, and will be disappointed,’ one said.”
Apparently, despite yesterday’s silence, some countries are prepared to countenance longer transitional periods for new member states – which is encouraging for Cameron. But those sorts of policy changes are only going to be hampered by bluster on his part. If the Prime Minister wants to keep his party and the voting public on side, he’d do better – as Open Europe and Paul Goodman have said this week – to devise a proper plan for renegotiation. Rhetoric alone won’t cut it.