UK declares war on EU (according to the newspapers)

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By Alasdair Sandford
UK declares war on EU (according to the newspapers)

Are the United Kingdom and the European Union set for a return to the fetid atmosphere seen in some infamous exchanges of the past?

Almost 25 years ago Britain’s best-known tabloid greeted the then President of the European Commission with a headline that underlined British hostility to his supposed attempts to force federalism on the UK.

Barely had the new British Conservative government put its feet under the table following its surprise election victory last week, than its stance towards Europe was being reported in bellicose terms among sections of the press.

With euro-scepticism rampant in England in particular, the EU is being warned that the prime minister is on the warpath over the terms of the UK’s membership ahead of a planned referendum by the end of 2017.

The Daily Express set out its stall for the campaign, reporting that David Cameron had declared war on the EU with plans for a showdown at June’s European Council summit, already being dubbed the “Battle of Brussels” according to the paper.

At the same time, the first of potentially many new rows with Europe on specific issues blew up over the European Commission’s plans on migration, which include proposals for member states to share the burden over migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa, by accepting quotas to relocate them across the EU.

Days before the details were actually announced, Britain’s opposition to the EU-wide resettlement scheme was reported in defiant terms. What also stood out was the hostility to the apparent “mandatory” nature of the Commission’s plans. Yet as quickly became clear, under existing arrangements with the EU, Britain already had a legal option to opt-out from such proposals.

The tone was set on Monday by The Times, whose article ‘Brussels forces Britain to accept Med migrants’ (£) talked of planned “legislation for a mandatory migrant quota system”.

The word “force” appeared elsewhere too. The Daily Express – which backed the anti-EU party UKIP at the general election – also headlined ‘EU to FORCE Britain to take thousands more Med migrants’, referring to the plans being seen as a “declaration of war”.

The Daily Telegraph employed similar language, reporting that “every country within the EU could be forced to accept a quota of refugees” and that Britain “would refuse to accept the proposal by the European Commission”.

However it became apparent on Monday that any attempt to make the system mandatory would have been impossible, as the UK – like Ireland – has an existing agreement with the EU concerning Justice and Home Affairs measures allowing it to choose whether or not to take part. Officials in Brussels confirmed that this would cover migration, in which Denmark has a blanket opt-out from EU rules.

So, was this an example of disinformation on the part of the British papers? Or had Brussels tried to force the issue before backing down? The Daily Mail appeared to suggest the latter by asserting that “EU plans to make Britain take 60,000 asylum seekers – double the current intake – collapsed last night following a stand-off with the new Conservative government, which has promised a tough review of immigration policy”.

The Commission’s European Plan on Migration published on Wednesday talks of “an EU-wide resettlement scheme to offer 20 000 places distributed in all Member States” in the short-term, followed later by a more permanent system for relocating mass influxes of migrants in emergency situations.

Regardless of the numbers, Britain remains opposed to the very idea of a resettlement scheme, arguing that it would only encourage people smugglers and migrants themselves. On the day the Commission’s plans were published, Britain’s Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May wrote that London would use its exemptions from EU migration laws to stay out of the system, in an article in The Times under the heading ‘EU is putting migrants at risk’ (£).

The detailed positions of other countries on Mediterranean migrants seem to have attracted little coverage in UK papers, although Italian protests at the British position via the BBC were picked up by the Daily Mirror. The Commission’s rebuttal of the UK government’s objections has been given prominence by The Guardian, which highlighted comments by its vice-president Frans Timmermans questioning whether Theresa May had read all the plans.

The row over quotas has overshadowed the bid by the EU’s diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini to seek backing at the UN for military action against people smugglers, via a resolution that Britain has helped draft.

The plight of the Mediterranean migrants has not been alone in putting sections of the British press on a war-footing with Brussels. The Daily Mail has reported that ‘David Cameron is targeting ‘benefit tourists’ by demanding that the EU allow Britain to ban payouts to migrants for the first four years.

Unreported was the fact that the principle of restrictions on welfare benefits for internal EU migrants had already been approved in a decision last year by the European Court of Justice in an employment case involving Germany.

Interestingly, the emphasis on European issues in Scotland – where the pro-EU Scottish National Party swept all rival parties away at the election – has been different. The warnings over workers’ rights as reported in The Scotsman came not from UK ministers in the direction of Brussels, but from eastern Europe towards London.

The Financial Times is among a minority of papers to lead with the response of European leaders, highlighting a warning from Germany (£) that Cameron’s demands for Treaty change (£) would meet resistance.

Only a few days into the life of the new British government, some of the country’s newspapers seem to have set the tone for the debate over Europe that looks set to continue for the next two years at least.