Cameron must seize on a Bremain vote to get EU reform

If the morning of Friday 24 June brings news of a victory for the Leave campaign in the UK/EU referendum or a narrow victory for the Remain camp that fails to end the debate, the blame game will start.

The first stop should be Brussels. One of the best recruiting sergeants for the Brexit camp has been the cadre of tin-eared bureaucrats that currently run the European Union and Commission.

Perhaps because the commissioners are selected by politicians rather than elected by voters, they seem to have an intense lack of interest in the views and opinions of the 500 million ordinary Europeans under their purview.

This was thrown into a harsh spotlight in 2015 when the Commission managed to ignore the loud and violent anger on the streets of Athens ahead of Greens’ rejection of the latest austerity-led bailout.

Commissioners only deal with the politicians who select them and thus the painful temporary resolution of the Greek debacle came down to a showdown between German finance minister Wolfgang  Schäuble and fellow hardline northern European figures versus Greek premier Alexis Tsipras and his then finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

In the end, Tspiras had to agree to a fresh round of spending cuts and tax hikes, and Varoufakis lost his job.

The message will not have been lost among Britons worried about the anti-democratic features of the EU system. While pro- and anti-Europeans alike share this angst over a powerless elected parliament and a powerful non-elected commission it was a key weapon in the Brexiteers’ armoury.

If the voters have delivered a strong Brexit message then it may be late for the Commission to learn any lessons. Euroscepticism is across the rise in core EU members from both left and right.

According to research by Berenberg Bank, almost six out of 10 Italian voters express support for anti-EU or eurosceptic parties, followed by one in three Austrians and French and a quarter of Swedes.

Not all this will be due to the abstruse issue of democracy in the EU but the anger over the cack-handed response to the refugee crisis is also a criticism of the current leaders in Brussels.


But a Remain vote will give Brussels an opportunity to embark on a wholesale review of the way that they do business. This is not an appeal for Brussels to give ground to its recalcitrant member but to acknowledge that voters in its second largest economy have sent a strong message.

The good news is that having alone in Europe asked the electorate to back his country’s membership of the EU and won, David Cameron will have a mandate to re-engage with Brussels - and Brussels should realise it has to respond.

There are six key steps that the Government must indicate clearly it will take on 24 June. The first is to show it is prepared to act as a positive force for change rather than behave as a curmudgeon and a victim — this an issue of attitude and language rather than policy.

Secondly on the key issue of migration the UK must make clear it is aware that the refugee crisis will affect all European countries regardless of their membership of one club or another.

Given that the small number of migrants that have come to the UK have been resettled successfully, Cameron can use the Bremain vote to offer to take in more refugees while applying pressure on other countries to take their fair share. Brexieteers will scream but tough - they lost.

Third, in a move would curry support among Conservatives at home Cameron should call on the EU to address the issue of the free movement of labour within the community.

Germany’s insistence that this is a sacred principle of the EU has clearly angered Britons and other nations and Brussels and Berlin must be gently impelled to start a debate about reform. The current system is not working for all EU nations, which alone is a cause for change.

Fourth, Cameron should reverse his decision to take the Conservative Party out of the European People’s Party group, which deprived the Tories of influence in the European Parliament and put in an alliance with disreputable right-wing groups. This could be a small first step towards recalibrating the power balance between the Parliament and the Commission.

Lastly, the Government must invest in training of its civil servants to ensure that more are able to take senior positions with the Commission. The UK used to punch well above its weight within Brussels but its share of senior jobs has declined markedly over the last two decades.

There are many other areas where Britain’s voice needs to be heard, such as on a single market for digital services, improving payment systems within the EU, making it easier for businesses to raise money cross border, a more robust trade relationship with China, and energy security to name just five.

But tackling those six issues above will be vital to giving the EU the legitimacy it is losing on a daily basis.

A Brexit vote will probably consign the EU to a decade on internal strife and ultimately to its demise. This is why a Bremain vote must be seized upon as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the UK to drive through reforms that both Brexiteers and Bremainers alike desperately want.

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