I am currently in France and I am surrounded by people posing the same question: What the hell is Cameron doing in Brussels?
For those of you not in Britain, or with other things to do than follow Tory shenanigans, here is a short summary on how we arrived at the Brussels meeting today.
Britain has always been profoundly Eurosceptic. This is because of a variety of historical reasons, but also because Europe has served as an easy scapegoat for whatever is wrong with governance in the UK. Crucially for the right of the political spectrum anti-EU feeling has been a wonderful deflection from the failures of the ruling class and a distraction from rising inequality. It is so much easier to blame distant bureaucrats for failures at home. So much more convenient to blame European workers for unemployment and lack of opportunities for the British working class. The fact that the distortions in the domestic labour market are caused by a predatory elite disadvantaging local workers is by the by.
The consequence of the above is a strongly anti-immigration, anti-EU working class manipulated by a strongly anti-EU City which dreams deregulatory dreams away from the clutches of Brussels. Laughably, the working class vote running away from Labour since the financial crisis landed in the open arms of racist populist UKIP, a party of rich parochial Brits with a gripe against immigration for purely personal gain.
Caught between the financial sector lackeys in the Conservative Party and pressured by UKIP on the right, Cameron felt that he could defuse the tension and secure his position by promising a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU where he to win the 2015 election. It is widely believed that at the time the promise was made no one (including Cameron himself) thought he would win, therefore the referendum promise was a wonderful political ploy with no real consequence.
Alas, the wise British people voted for another 5 years of austerity (hear that Greeks? People on occasion vote enthusiastically for more pain!). The election promise of Cameron had to become reality. Cameron’s internal political games became a critical danger for the country. The majority of business, academia in its entirety and most people who know what the EU actually is and does are strongly opposed to the prospect of exit. Yet, a referendum is an unpredictable thing (hear that Mr Tsipras?). The Leave campaign in this referendum is heavily dependent on often unvoiced racist and anti-immigrant feelings in British society. Given a chance to express themselves, aligned and backed by rich financiers, who knows what might happen?
How could Cameron now step back from his promise to give the British public another (they already had a referendum on EEC membership in 1975) stab at an exit? The answer the government came up with was the famed ‘negotiation’. A completely bogus political theater designed to allow the PM to favour the Staying-In option, while at the same time heading a strongly Eurosceptic party. Do not kid yourselves, what has been happening during the last few months and the last few days in Brussels has very little content. It is an ersatz fight, whose sole purpose is to allow Cameron to sidestep his own miscalculations.
Where does this leave the Staying-In campaign? Whatever Cameron brings back from Brussels can be safely ignored. Good deal or bad deal (on Tory terms) does not matter. What matters is that Britain outside the EU is a bad idea both for Britain and the EU. There are a lot of things wrong with the EU, and a lot subject to negotiation and change. Yet, this referendum is an internal political game which has nothing to do with the deficiencies of the EU in its current incarnation.
Is Britain trying to leave the EU? The short answer is no. This is a fight between different factions of the right, that by miscalculation and mistake may lead to a political earthquake. Let us hope that it does not come to pass. Let us work towards preventing it.