Cameron is sawing away on a pillar of the EU

Last week brought some clarity into an issue that will shape next year’s political life like no other: the possibility of a Brexit. Finally, Prime Minister David Cameron provided his demands in writing. The letter, made available to the general public, starts with an affectionate ‘Dear Donald.’

Before suspecting the ever pragmatic politician of a display of amicability – some fellow conservative politicians think of his list as not ambitious enough – it might be worth taking a closer look at the actual demands. Some are digestible by Brussels, some are near to a done deal already – the kind of economic proposals Merkel would sign off in a heartbeat. Some have been voiced before and are simply very unlikely. One among them is tricky and goes right for the jugular of the European Union. We would better realize that early on.

In his letter, Cameron makes a strong plea for a competitive European Union, a thought that seems reasonable to economically strong countries like Germany. He also plans on strengthening the influence of national parliaments on a European level, which is, admittedly, an elegant move because it plays on the supposed weakness of the European Parliament and references to the permanently invoked democratic deficit of the EU all at the same time. It would be surprising if the European Parliament gave into this demand without putting up a fight. But then again, their fighting power truly is somewhat limited by the very structure of the Union.

Cameron emphasised once again that less European involvement is the way forward. While this is a well established British position by now, a profound change in the structure of the EU would require altering the Treaties, which is an unlikely and very complex endeavour, one most countries will not readily embark on.

The crucial point of the letter is neither economy nor sovereignty, instead it is – and how could it be anything else these days – immigration and welfare. Cameron states that EU nationals should only receive certain benefits when they have resided in the UK for four years. From a legal perspective, this is a proposal that breaches European and domestic law, as it is discriminatory.

Apart from numerous other legal issues, this demand is targeting the freedom of movement of EU nationals. One of the four Freedoms, this concept of freedom of movement  is a cornerstone of the EU common market. Celebrated as one of the greatest achievements of the EU in other parts of Europe, the British government primarily regards it as a threat.

When politicians and journalists alike point out that Cameron’s stance is comparatively modest, they overlook the built-in contradiction that is on play here; in order to consider staying, the UK wants an EU with a competitive common market, but at the same time they are sawing away on one of the pillars this construct rests on: the freedom of movement of persons.

This piece is not concerned with the question if one should stay in the EU. It can be expected that Brussels will deploy all available instruments, draw on all tricks one can think of in order reach an agreement with London. Nevertheless, the European camel keeps track of British straws.

To some on the other side of the Channel, the freedom of movement of persons is sacred. While this letter of last week may not have been particularly provocative for British standards, it contains political dynamite.

It is essential to recognize it as such, maybe even take a step back from it – if not for emotional reasons, then for the purely pragmatic reason of being able to reach a deal. In the end, this is what Downing Street is working towards.

Image credit: Brett Jordan

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