Cast your mind back to a world before Brexit (if you can conceive of such a time). It was 2013 and UKIP’s poll ratings were on the rise. David Cameron promised that if the Conservatives won the next general election, he would renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and then give people the “simple choice” between staying in under those new terms, or leaving the EU.
And of course win they did in 2015. The coalition government ended and the Conservative Party had a majority in the House of Commons. In November that year, David Cameron duly wrote to Donald Tusk a letter titled “A new settlement for the United Kingdom in the European Union”, setting out the changes the UK wished to see in the areas of economic management, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. Three months of intense negotiations ensued, with No. 10 briefing that the final deal would “fundamentally change” Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Then, in February 2016 a draft of the deal was leaked, with The Sun branding it “a steaming pile of manure”. Early polling by ComRes found that only 21 per cent of Britons thought Mr Cameron’s deal was a good one, while 58 per cent thought the opposite. The pressure was now on for the Prime Minister to secure the “new settlement” that he had so often talked about.
After many late nights of negotiation and a European Council meeting on 19 February 2016, Mr Cameron announced on 20 February that he had reached a deal to give the UK “special status” in the EU. Donald Tusk tweeted: “Deal. Unanimous support for new settlement for #UKinEU”.
It was at that point that it became clear how unimpressed Eurosceptics were with the new deal – not only members of the public, but members of his own Cabinet. Both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove made it increasingly clear that they would not be able to support the Prime Minister’s deal.
The proposed reforms were quickly picked apart by pundits and journalists alike and it became clear that a “new settlement” this was not. “Who do EU think you are kidding, Mr Cameron?” asked the front page of The Sun, “The great delusion!” roared the Daily Mail and “EU are joking” jabbed the Metro. The deal was a dead duck – so much so that in the ensuing referendum, the Remain campaign dropped all reference to it entirely.
But, you have to ask why the EU offered David Cameron such a poor deal in the first place? One argument goes that they would of course offer him as little as possible, as he was always going to back Remain in the forthcoming referendum, whatever the outcome of the preceding negotiations. However, we must remember that Cameron made pointedly clear to Messrs. Junker and Tusk that if he did not get an acceptable set of reforms, there was a good chance that he would lose the referendum and the UK would vote to leave the EU.
No country had ever chosen to leave the EU before and certainly no country with an economy the size of the UK’s. This would have been (and now will be) a hammer blow to the EU. But, they were willing to risk it nonetheless.
In the face of the ongoing clamour for reform, the EU decided it must remain resolute in the face of UK demands. It was much more important to ensure the integrity of the EU’s four pillars and to demonstrate that the EU is only willing to bend so far to accommodate member states. It was to be a misjudgement of historic proportions.
After the UK leaves the EU, certain EU member states – having seen that our island nation neither summarily bursts into flames, nor floats off into the Atlantic Ocean – will feel emboldened to push for further reforms, particularly transfers of power back to national parliaments and control of immigration. Greece, Hungary and Italy will be at the top of the list.
But, the EU’s reaction will be to double down. Now that the troublesome Brits are out of the way, the EU can truly focus on achieving ever-closer union, full fiscal harmonisation and can plough ahead with projects like the EU Army. It will have little truck with the demands of minor European economies that risk getting in the way of its grand plan. And so the 5* Movement, Alternative für Deutschland and Syriza will grow, bringing with them increasing resentment towards the distant and unyielding Commission. Whether further referenda on EU membership will follow, only time will tell.
As the fractures become clearer and countries ask themselves whether they too might be better off outside of the system that was supposed to deliver prosperity and defend their freedom, but actually does the opposite, we will look back on 20 February 2016 as the day the EU fundamentally rejected reform and made clear “it’s our way or the highway”. It may well just turn out that the highway is a surprisingly popular option.
Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list and works as a management consultant in London. Follow him on twitter: @LewisFeilder