As Tory ministers wrestle with their consciences before the EU referendum, an intriguing new argument for voting to stay has emerged. Rather conveniently, it resolves the conflict between principle and personal loyalty to David Cameron that several members of the Cabinet are wrestling with. It goes like this: the European Union is going to collapse in the next ten to 15 years. So, you can vote for Britain to stay in, safe in the knowledge that the EU will be gone within a generation.
Some ministers add another layer to this argument. They claim that Britain leaving would precipitate the demise of the European Union and it is not in our interest to be blamed for that. Better to stay and let the EU collapse of its own accord.
It is tempting to dismiss this as sophistry; simply a cover for doing what is politically expedient in the referendum and siding with the PM. Certainly, it gets these ministers out of a hole. But it isn’t only British Tories trying to resolve their referendum dilemma who think that the whole European project is in danger. It is a view that is increasingly shared by influential European politicians.
What has prompted this pessimism is the migration crisis. This is a far greater challenge than the travails of the euro and it is testing solidarity among EU members to the limit. Only 414 refugees have been relocated under a scheme that was meant to disperse 160,000 across Europe, and the whole Schengen open-borders system of is now on the verge of suspension.
The proposed suspension of Schengen for two years would be a huge blow to the EU. For the first time its establishment would have to concede that integration can be reversed. Many in the Commission take the view that the project is like a shark — if it isn’t moving forward then it will die. That is why, for them, the answer to every problem must be more Europe. If it is not, then the whole thing could collapse.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, has even declared that without Schengen ‘the euro has no point’. This might be hyperbole. But it would indicate that a European state (which the euro ultimately needs) is even further away than before.
The return of border controls would also strike a psychological blow. For many Europeans, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a crucial part of the EU’s appeal is that it is the antithesis of the old Eastern Bloc with its border posts and travel bans. The idea of EU citizens being asked to present their passports as they travel around the continent is, therefore, anathema to them. Merkel grew up in East Germany, and it was the strength of her commitment to freedom of movement that led to David Cameron dropping any challenge to that principle from his renegotiation demands.
The combination of the migrant crisis and the security situation makes it very hard to see how Schengen can survive. When terrorists can drive between Belgium and France with no challenge, something has to give. In the French presidential election next year, it will be surprising if any of the major candidates advocate a return to a borderless Europe — the state of emergency means that France has effectively reintroduced controls. With Marine Le Pen of the Front National threatening to make the second round of the presidential election, it would be a reckless politician who would commit to restoring the status quo ante.
Equally difficult to envisage is any sustainable solution to the migration crisis. Whatever the EU tries, it will always struggle to secure its southern border: the number of people trying to get in and the number of ways they can do so are simply too great. What we are seeing at the moment is the start of a mass movement of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe that will go on for a generation.
It is also hard to imagine Eastern European countries and the Baltic states agreeing to accept large numbers of refugees, particularly given their attitudes towards Islam. But without any sharing of the burden, Greece and Italy won’t be able to cope for much longer. While it might just be possible for the rest of the Schengen zone to cut Greece adrift, it could not do that to Italy.
The logic may point to leaving the EU, but British commentators and politicians have made this mistake before, imagining that the internal contradictions of the European project would bring it to a halt. The one-size-fits-all interest rate of the single currency clearly has not worked for every member, and has proved ruinous for some. Yet the single currency still staggers on — and it has not lost a member yet.
Back in 2013, Cameron calculated that the euro’s problems would force further integration, prompting the need for a new treaty. He thought this would give Britain negotiating leverage. That was one reason he proposed a referendum. But the eurozone has simply muddled through finding ways round the rules where necessary.
British support for EU enlargement has always been based, in large part, on the belief that expanding the membership would force the abandonment of political integration. But that has not happened. Ironically, it will be the consequences of granting free movement to the citizens of these new member states that will be one of the trickiest issues for the ‘in’ campaign in this referendum.
What was underestimated in all of these cases was the sheer political will to keep things going. Britons, who have a transactional view of the EU, often fail to appreciate how far European politicians will go to keep the project moving forward.
Will that political will continue to exist as European centrist parties continue to struggle? The trouble is that the answer to this question will not become clear until long after Britain has decided whether to stay in the EU.