When it comes to Europe, David Cameron has to battle on two fronts. The one that excites him most is the fight inside the Conservative Party, however risky it may be for the Tories and the country. By contrast, in the European scene, Cameron has trampled on any chance of sympathy from other member states. Convinced that his demands are perfectly reasonable, Cameron has so far antagonised, one way or another, all of his potential European allies.
His post-election victory tour of European Union capitals was not a good idea: Ukraine was and still is on everybody’s mind. Trying to talk Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel into cutting benefits for migrant workers proved counterproductive to say the least, and stirred anger in Poland, much to the benefit of the local nationalist parties. The attempt to impose the British debate on the late June European summit agenda was also a bad idea—the Greek debt crisis and the humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean relegated Britain to a minor dinner-time talking point.
In France, so far, public opinion has remained indifferent to the Brexit quagmire. There is too much to mull over at home—moreover, it never comes as a surprise to the French that the Brits want to do things their own peculiar way. Yet French political leaders are starting to realise that Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the terms of British membership will have consequences for them too. Ten years after the highly divisive French constitutional referendum, both socialists and conservatives pretend they have recovered their unity and coherence over European issues. But it is mostly lip service, and the scars are still raw.
Take immigration—the favourite battleground not only of Marine Le Pen, but of all those with one eye on their voters’ concerns. The issue here is not so much about the amount of benefits paid to eastern European immigrants—it is about unemployment, and the canard that “immigrants are stealing all the jobs.” Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly criticised the freedom of movement since he came back into the political arena. He has now gone as far as comparing the arrival of migrants to having a flood in the bathroom.
Cameron’s claim that he wants to give back more power to national parliaments, and to prevent any further EU integration is likely to resonate with those in France on both the right and left who are eager to resume the fight with the fédéralistes (integrationists) in their own party ranks. François Fillon, the former Prime Minister and follower of the late Philippe Séguin, the former President of the National Assembly, who ran the anti-Maastricht campaign, has mellowed on Europe. But the torch is carried high by Henri Guaino, a former Sarkozy advisor, and Laurent Wauquiez, one of the younger rising républicains, whom Sarkozy is trying to keep under control. On the left is a fringe that disapproves of the Prime Minister’s liberal turn, and which is prompt to denounce the EU’s insensitivity to the suffering of the Greeks.
Whatever sympathy there may be for some British Eurosceptics’ arguments, the prospect of treaty changes makes everybody in France shiver. The 2005 referendum is not a happy memory, and no party, short of the Front National, wants another one. The British want to leave? Elder statesmen such as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Michel Rocard have gone so far as to suggest they might be better off out.
The only constructive and truly useful proposal the British Prime Minister has so far put forward is the extension of the single market to services—but then the French think that the UK has too much of an advantage already in that area. Last but not least, the notion that Britain could have its say over eurozone policies without being a member strikes everybody on this side of the channel as a worrying sign of insular insanity.
However the Brexit debate unfolds in the UK in the months to come, it will influence the French political agenda at a critical time. In November 2016, primaries will determine who, between Sarkozy, Alain Juppé and a few others, will be the candidate for the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party in the 2017 presidential election. As for the Socialist Party, in November 2016 it will have to decide whether it should hold primaries or re-nominate François Hollande unopposed.
Assuming the British referendum takes place at more or less the same time, the French political debate will be deeply influenced, if not contaminated, by the British one. Eurosceptic arguments are likely to cross the Channel easily, especially those concerning immigration, a common and growing concern throughout the EU. In contrast, the pro-EU stance, based on the huge trade and financial gains to be had from remaining a member, will play to the notion that the UK, after all, has got more out of the EU than France.