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10 May 2015

Financial Times: What David Cameron’s electoral victory means for Europe

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From a European perspective, author Wolfgang Münchau sees four consequences of last week’s electoral triumph of David Cameron, prime minister, who is committed to a referendum on EU membership by 2017.

The last time the British opinion pollsters got it so badly wrong was in 1992. John Major’s victory was the prelude to a European disaster: a few months later, the UK left the European exchange rate mechanism. Might another electoral shock 23 years later presage a new European crisis: a British exit from the EU?

The first is prolonged uncertainty until the referendum. Supporters of Britain’s EU membership console themselves with opinion polls that appear to show a majority for their position. Do not fool yourself. Nobody can predict the outcome of a referendum that far in advance. And besides, who trusts pollsters after last week? It is more instructive to look at the political dynamics. There you have resurgent nationalism in Scotland and a possible English counter-reaction — a cocktail unhelpful to the EU cause.

Mr Cameron may no longer have to align his position with a coalition partner but his majority is small, which in turn may strengthen the eurosceptics in his party. This leads to the second consequence: the negotiations will not be a doddle. They could be even more accident-prone than the current EU negotiations with Greece.

Mr Cameron has made seven proposals, including control of intra-EU migration, the right to stop benefits to “benefit tourists” from other EU member states and a repatriation of some powers to national parliaments — some of which will eventually require a change in the European treaties.

He may well get a deal on restricting benefits to immigrants from the EU. [...] He may also find support for his request for longer transition periods for citizens from accession countries to be allowed to work in the EU. But the other requests would be harder to agree on.

If treaty change is required, it can obviously not happen under Mr Cameron’s timetable. It is possible that he may just seek a political agreement to be formally implemented later. But such an agreement, too, would require unanimity among EU members, and it is far from clear that this is attainable. Mr Cameron will not only have to persuade the British people to stay in the EU, he will have to persuade everybody else that such an agreement is in their best interest too. That would take a huge diplomatic effort of the kind we have not seen from him in the past.

The third point is a geopolitical weakening of the EU while these talks are going on. The possibility of a British exit and the divisions that could open up during the negotiations with the UK will make it harder for the EU to keep a united stance towards Russian President Vladimir Putin in the stand-off over Ukraine. Mr Cameron has already taken a back seat in EU diplomacy, leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande of France to take the lead. As the prime minister devotes his attention to winning over his compatriots to the pro-EU cause, expect no changes there.

Finally, there is the hideous prospect of a simultaneous British exit from the EU and Greek departure from the eurozone. The EU cannot afford both. Greece is probably safe until the UK referendum. Who knows — the British electorate may inadvertently save the Eurozone from making a huge mistake.


Full article on Financial Times (subscription required)


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