After a difficult week, and a particularly tense two days of talks with EU leaders in Brussels, British Prime Minister David Cameron struck a deal late Feb. 19. This concludes his renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the European Union. Cameron announced that the United Kingdom will hold a long-awaited referendum June 23 to decide whether to remain in the European Union. In the coming days much will be made of the renegotiation within the UK, with Euroskeptics inevitably condemning it as not going far enough. Campaigners for continued EU membership will point out that Cameron gained much of what he set out to achieve. In truth, when the referendum finally does come around, the renegotiation is unlikely to figure highly in the voters' list of considerations.
There are three key achievements of Cameron's renegotiation. First, the United Kingdom will be officially exempted from the European Union's principle of "ever closer union." This was a fairly academic change since the United Kingdom was already on a different path than the rest of the Continent because it negotiated a permanent opt-out from the euro currency in 1992 alongside Denmark. Euroskeptics will see this as a win. During negotiations, Belgian representatives in particular opposed this concession, seeing it as weakening the European Union.
In addition to this, non-eurozone countries will be able to delay new laws proposed by the eurozone, allowing them to buy time in negotiating amendments. This is seen as an important protection for the city of London, which many in the United Kingdom fear would otherwise be mistreated by an integrationist eurozone. French President Francois Hollande opposed this change in talks with Cameron. Lastly, employment benefits for EU migrants could be restricted. This would involve the pulling of a so-called "emergency brake" that would allow the United Kingdom to restrict benefits for seven years. Cameron entered negotiations asking for 13 years, but Central and Eastern European countries argued for five. Ultimately the two sides agreed on seven years as a compromise. In addition, from 2020 onwards child benefit payments for the children of EU migrants living outside the United Kingdom will be indexed to the cost of living in their home countries.
The United Kingdom received a hard commitment that the changes regarding ever-closer union and protections for non-eurozone countries would be written into the EU treaties the next time they were opened. The benefit restriction changes are not subject to the same guarantees.
The upshot of this is that Cameron returns to the United Kingdom with an agreement he can tout as being a step forward. The drawback, however, is that the agreement is also open to attack from Euroskeptics who want more. This would have been the case in most realistic scenarios for the renegotiation: Cameron was bound to proclaim victory, Euroskeptics guaranteed to snipe. In fact the renegotiation is not the end of a process, but the beginning of one. The debate over a British exit from the bloc is now likely to come alive. Cameron can now fully come out in favor of remaining in the European Union. He will go up against several senior conservative politicians who are already showing their true colors by advocating for an exit. Justice Minister Michael Gove has already announced that he will be campaigning for leaving the bloc. Cameron does have numerous allies and some potential Euroskeptics have changed their alignment. Home Secretary Theresa May in particular looks to have abandoned early Euroskeptic leanings and is now siding with Cameron. All eyes are now on popular London mayor and possible future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who could still go either way.
This change of momentum follows a period in which both camps in the referendum campaign have been beset by infighting and suffered from a lack of leadership. The two sides, however, have become broadly defined. The established leadership of both main parties favors remaining in the bloc. Cameron has been clearly leaning toward this camp even if he is not yet openly campaigning. He is joined by the governor of the Bank of England and the majority of the business sector, especially larger London-based corporations, though most have not yet been outspoken in their support.
The side in favor of leaving the bloc is comprised of more dissident forces that are accustomed to attacking the establishment. This includes conservatives who have long resented European influences, Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party and the media. It is the skeptical alignment of the press that is the most interesting factor in the 2016 debate over a British exit from the European Union. The last time Britain held an In-Out Referendum was in 1975; the two sides looked remarkably similar but the press was in favor of remaining in the bloc. Much has changed in the last four decades and the influence of the establishment is not what it once was. The 2008 financial crisis created a new antipathy towards bankers within the United Kingdom, while a parliamentary expenses scandal that emerged the following year also discredited politicians in the eyes of the public. Thus with a weakened establishment having its messages purveyed to the British public by a Euroskeptic media, there would seem to be a higher risk of a pro-exit vote this time around. Some polls show the two sides tied at 41 percent each with 18 percent undecided.
Nevertheless, it is likely that over the coming months the tide will turn. This may have already happened: the surprise result of the 2015 British election demonstrated that pollsters do not necessarily have a strong handle on the national mood. The establishment may be discredited in the public's eyes, but it ultimately represents the core interests of the country. When it finally arrives the decision will be a momentous one, and rebellious sentiments are likely to take a back seat to the considerations of national security and the economic benefits that membership of the European Union still affords to the United Kingdom.