LONDON: After a lengthy summer break, Prime Minister David Cameron is buckling down for months of hard graft over Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU, which could be complicated by Europe’s migrant crisis. Cameron, who last month was holidaying on the Algarve after a surprise election win in May, heads back to Portugal and Spain tomorrow for talks on EU reforms. He also faces a key debate on the referendum in parliament on Monday. His goals include limiting the number of migrants coming to Britain from within the European Union and ultimately staying in the 28-nation bloc subject to securing reforms. But images of non-EU migrants flocking to Europe from countries like Syria dominating British TV channels are providing fuel for opponents such as Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and could stoke anti-EU sentiment among some voters who believe it should be taking tougher action.
Cameron took to the airwaves yesterday to stress that the migrant crisis, which has seen hundreds flock to camps in northern France in the hope of crossing to Britain, could only be solved by bringing stability to the troubled nations they are fleeing. “I don’t think that there is an answer that can be achieved by taking more and more refugees,” he told the BBC. The referendum which many observers believe that Cameron only offered to shore up support from powerful euroskeptics in his centre-right Conservative party is fast evolving in ways few could have predicted. “One slightly suspects he offered this referendum in the expectation that he wouldn’t be prime minister after the election,” said Robin Pettitt, a politics lecturer at London’s Kingston University. “Now he actually has to deal with it.” The vote must be held by the end of 2017 but senior Conservatives suggest it is likely next year. Opinion polling by YouGov last month indicated 44 percent of Britons would vote to stay in the EU compared to 37 percent who support leaving.
‘It gets conflated’
Despite the looming campaign, it is not the EU but the crisis involving thousands of migrants from countries like Syria trying to seek refuge in Europe which has dominated the news in Britain over the summer holiday season. Experts warn the issue could merge with the influx of people from other parts of the European Union in the minds of some voters during the referendum campaign. “It gets conflated-it’s all ‘foreigners coming over here, getting our stuff’,” said Pettitt. Immigration is one of the most sensitive issues for British voters. Annual net migration in Britain hit a record level of 330,000 last week and the government has failed to honor a promise to reduce migration to the tens of thousands. Farage says immigration will be central to UKIP’s campaign to leave Europe one of three competing anti-EU camps. Even Home Secretary Theresa May, seen as a potential successor to Cameron, argues that the crisis proves Europe’s migration system is “broken”.
Managing the party
Closer to home, Cameron’s euroskeptic MPs are focused on the technicalities of the campaign. A test of their mood will come Monday, the first day back after parliament’s summer recess, when the House of Commons holds its last debate on the bill underpinning the referendum. It then goes to the House of Lords, the upper chamber, for approval. Euroskeptics have welcomed a move by the government to change the wording of the referendum question which means Cameron and others wanting to stay in Europe will no longer be able to paint themselves as the “Yes” camp, which was seen as an advantage with voters. They are also pleased that the government is proposing changes making it harder for ministers to announce measures which could favor the pro- EU camp in the 28 days before the vote traditionally known as “purdah”. But some remain suspicious that Cameron, who is due to step down by 2020, will content himself with securing cosmetic reforms to Britain’s relationship with Europe, not the deep-seated changes they want. Former minister Andrew Lansley reportedly said last month that Cameron plans to “choreograph” a “bang the table row” with French President Francois Hollande to try and convince voters he has secured a good deal. With technical talks on the nature of the possible reforms under way in Brussels, perhaps some divine intervention could help soothe tensions. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby launched a blog this week debating how to “disagree well on Europe”. — AFP