At Westminster, the countdown to the EU referendum is on. And no one is hearing the political clock tick louder than British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Before the British election in May, Cameron promised that if he won, he would hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017. He also pledged to renegotiate London’s relationship with Brussels ahead of that vote.
Now the Conservatives have a majority, Cameron is safely ensconced in Number 10 and that looming vote on Europe – something of an elephant in the room during the election campaign – can no longer be ignored.
Chris Riddell, political cartoonist at The Observer, explained: “On the Tory right, Europe has been the great divisive issue for a generation. And I think Cameron has been very successful, and the people around him, at managing his own right wing and the coalition of the last five years was very useful for him. He had (former British Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg, who was pro-European, who became this sort of human shield.
“Cameron had to make that promise to his own right wing that they would have a referendum if they just played along and didn’t mention that big elephant in the corner. ‘Let’s not talk about it and then you’ll get your referendum after the election.’ And guess what? We’re post-election now and what’s looming? The elephant.”
So, Cameron has a tricky road to navigate – not only with Brussels, but also with his own party.
He needs to appease the Tory eurosceptics, many of whom are demanding an overhaul of the benefits system for migrants.
Cameron has pledged that changes to welfare to cut EU migration will be an “absolute requirement” of his renegotiation with Brussels.
Andrzej Rygielski, an EU migrant from Poland, has been living and working in the UK since 2005. He manages a shop on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.
Even though he is a British citizen, he recently received a letter saying that he must contact the government if his daughter leaves the UK.
Rygielski says Cameron has already changed the rules without consulting his European partners.
“They (the UK government) made the changes last year. They are asking people ‘where is your child?’ It means the benefits will be stopped if the child lives abroad. And this is part of EU regulation 883 from 2004 saying that all the citizens are entitled to take the benefit in the first country even if their children live abroad,” Rygielski explained.
Cameron is not looking to restrict the EU right to freedom of movement. He is looking at “restricting the rights of people once they’ve moved to another member state,” explained Stephen Booth, Co-Director at Open Europe – one of the think tanks advising the British government on tackling EU reforms.
“The centre piece of these reforms is restricting EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits including those in the UK, which you can get when you’ve got a job. And he (Cameron) wants to do that for the first four years. Once people arrive, they wouldn’t be eligible for those benefits,” Booth continued.
Until now, EU migrants could access some UK benefits right away. Under reform proposals under consideration, migrants could be forced to leave if they have been out of work for three months.
“The system for us (EU migrants) is kind of becoming more contribution-based,” said Barbara Drozdowicz, the Director of the East European Advice Centre
“For British citizens, it’s still income-based. You still don’t have to put a penny into the pot all your life and you can still claim everything else. So there is this sort of form of discrimination, I suppose, that is difficult to deal with.
“If the real reason behind the whole policy change is to reduce EU migration in terms of sheer numbers, I fear that it will not necessarily work because it assumes that people come over because of benefits, while it’s not true.”
Cameron also wants safeguards to ensure the single market cannot be rigged to favour eurozone members and a “red card” that allows national parliaments to club together to block new EU legislation.
He is also looking to change the EU’s historic mission of “fostering an ever-closer union” among the peoples of Europe. Stephen Booth at Open Europe agrees with the idea.
“I think it’s an important principle to establish that the European Union is not just a uniformed path towards greater integration centred around the single currency. I think it’s vital that the UK wins that argument at the highest political level,” Booth explained.
“And that you actually recognise that there are different constellations within the European Union based around trade in a single market, and that different member states will have different views on single currency, or when it comes to defence or foreign policy cooperation.
“We already have differences in terms of who is a member of the Schengen border-free zone. So I think it’s a case of making those political realities a formal fact of the European Union.”
That could be a tall task for Cameron, given the referendum deadline. But he has leverage in the fact that few EU members who want to see a Brexit.
Furthermore, opinion polls show that most British people want to stay in the European Union. But the number of undecided has also grown.
In fact, Cameron’s EU downfall, if there is one, may come, not from Europe from the UK – and from within his own party ranks.
“To be pro-European doesn’t necessarily mean to be pro-status quo in Brussels. But you can’t even begin that debate unless you move towards something that looks more like a Federal Europe. We’re a generation in Britain away from that sort of thinking,” said Chris Riddell.
“Unfortunately Cameron’s great problem is that he is dealing with Tory right-wingers who are sort of 20 years behind that thinking. So he’s got a lot of mileage to make up.
“And I hope he does it. I hope he manages to do this because we need to be in Europe. If he miscalculates, if he gets this wrong, there is a very real possibility that Britain will leave Europe, which is crazy, it’s madness.”