The United Kingdom (UK) is headed for a June referendum on whether it wishes to secede from the European Union (EU).
In anticipation of the vote, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party spent several days last week negotiating with a select group of EU leaders to lay out several paths unique to the UK that would differ significantly from the rules governing the remainder of the EU member states. Cameron has made clear that he wishes Britain to remain in the EU under this "special status" provided the changes are agreed upon by the EU governing bodies.
While things such as trade and banking and commerce regulations play a part in the negotiations and public debate, the most contentious areas surrounding Britain's continued EU membership have to do with migrants and benefits.
The UK already has a distinct relationship to the EU compared with other members, for at least two reasons — first, because they opted out of the common currency, the Euro, choosing instead to maintain the British Pound; second, because they also opted out of the Schengen Agreement (which provides for visa-free, borderless travel to all citizens of EU member states) thus retaining at least a modicum of immigration control. But the UK also wishes to opt out of treaties central to the EU's existence, which call for an "ever closer union" of the member states. Britons, even those willing to remain in the union, are generally unwilling to further cede their sovereignty, and many feel they've already given away too much independence and internal control over their politics and laws.
Cameron is now back in the UK trying to persuade voters in advance of the referendum that his negotiated deal for special status within the EU is more than sufficient to maintain UK sovereignty and control over its internal affairs, while at the same time allowing for a bridge to the rest of Europe by retaining EU membership. But he is opposed not only by Nigel Farage, populist leader of the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but also by at least five of his own cabinet ministers, as well as the mayor of London.
Note that the migrants who are the object of contention in this case aren't the flood of Syrians, Africans, Iraqis, and others that have flooded Europe's shores in the last year-plus; they don't constitute the dilemma for Britain that they do for other EU states, not just because the UK isn't signatory to Schengen, but because the island of Great Britain is separated from continental Europe by the English Channel, a substantially rougher, colder body of water to attempt traversing than the Mediterranean or Aegean seas. Britain has already rejected the notion, where the "other migrants" are concerned, that it has any obligation to accept a "fair share" of the million-plus who have entered in the past 12 months as Germany and other prime recipients struggle to parcel them out in an "equitable distribution" plan. The migrants among this group who have attempted to make it to Britain have tried to cross using the Channel Tunnel, and found themselves generally bottled up at the French end of the tunnel, at the port of Calais, France. After an initial burst of uncontrolled migration and smuggling in Calais, France has battened down the security hatches by means of additional fences, technology, and police, including an infusion of British officers to assist the French in maintaining order at the tunnel entry and precluding unauthorized access.
The migrants of deep concern, and division, among Britons pondering the upcoming referendum are the ones from other EU member states — usually the poorer, newer ones in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, although migrants from older member states still struggling economically to provide jobs in the post-recession collapse also figure into the equation (think Greece and Portugal).
These EU nationals migrate to seek jobs in the UK, as they do in Germany, which have economies significantly more robust than the source countries and, even though the UK maintains a say-so over whether they are permitted to enter in the first place in light of its Schengen opt-out, once the migrants are admitted, the all-encompassing EU web of rules for social benefits kicks in.
Many British taxpayers are unhappy about the drain on their treasury because of these very liberal and expensive rules, which govern what we would call unemployment insurance; in-work benefits for migrants who possess jobs; and child benefits, even for dependents of the migrant who have remained in the home country.
Cameron argues that his just-negotiated deal, although incremental, would ameliorate this burden and provide the basis for the UK to go its own path in the future with regard to internal EU migrants and provision of social benefits, and in halting the erosion of the right of Britons to control their own future. Others are not so sure, arguing that Mr. Cameron's deal isn't truly a treaty and therefore doesn't bind the EU.
The argument over what constitutes a "treaty" and what doesn't leaves the same bad taste in one's mouth that our own recent descent into madness did when the president negotiated a "non-treaty" with Iran in order to end-run the constitutional requirement that a treaty be approved by two-thirds of the Senate — and was allowed to get away with it by our Republican-led Congress. So is the argument over whether remaining in the EU under the deal, whether it is treaty or not, enhances or degrades the UK's national security (compare here and here).
Is the UK truly forging its own new path or only being placated, for which there may be a future price to pay? British voters will get a chance to weigh in on that come June. Meanwhile we can be certain that events are being watched closely in continental Europe as well — by EU leaders who must be pondering how far the thread can be pulled before the sweater comes apart and by nationalist-minded, Euroskeptical parties in other countries, such as France's National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom.