Octavian Report: Do you see the U.K. staying in the E.U.? How do you see the fight over that issue playing out?
Christopher Meyer: If you take the accumulation of opinion polls over the last couple of years, you’ll find that there has always been a majority in favor of staying in the E.U. There may have been one or two recently that had the “ins” and “outs” leveling, or maybe one that had the “outs” one percentage point ahead. The trend, the historical trend, has always been to have a majority in favor of staying in.
These polls are useless. They are meaningless. They are snapshots taken at a time when 99.9 percent of British people are not focusing on the E.U. The polling figures are only going to get interesting, say, a month out from the referendum. We don’t know when it is going to be held. The Prime Minister has said he’d like to get it out of the way next year. Maybe that is what is going to happen. We’ll see. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the technocrats have started negotiating. The Prime Minister set out in November the four main areas where he wanted to make progress to, as he put it, transform Britain’s relationship with its partners inside the E. U.
He wants Britain not to be involved in the mantra of “ever-closer union,” a mantra going all the way back to the beginning of the whole enterprise in 1951. He wants to be explicitly exempt from the requirements of an ever-closer union. That sounds quite radical, but it isn’t all that radical: the European Union has already agreed and acknowledged that different member states could move at different speeds. The idea of a closer union is more rhetorical than practical. He wants to put some physical constraints on freedom of movement, which is another way of saying immigration from other countries inside the E.U.
He can’t challenge the principle of freedom of movement because he knows perfectly well that it would be impossible to get from a negotiation. Nobody is going to agree to the overt compromising of one of the founding principles of the entire enterprise. The best he can get is some limitation on immigration — to be able to insist that no immigrant from inside the E.U. can draw welfare benefits in the U.K. after a substantial period in which they’ve been working in Britain. I think that when push comes to shove and we have the referendum, it’s going to focus essentially on what, if anything, Cameron has done to curb immigration. That’s the one popular issue which moves a very large percentage of the British public.
There are other things in there that he wants. He doesn’t want discrimination by the 17 members of the eurozone against the other 11 who are not inside the eurozone. Which essentially means if you are outside the eurozone, you still keep your national currency — but this should not prejudice the advantages you get from being inside the single market. Beyond that, it gets a bit technical. But the key thing to remember is that right now the polls are not telling us anything accurate at all and won’t until shortly before the referendum. There is right a harsh debate going on between the pro-Europeans and the anti-Europeans about the value of the things that the Prime Minister says he’s trying to get from our E.U. partners.
OR: Do you see the E.U. itself as becoming increasingly unstable?
Meyer: This is one of the interesting factors in the question of whether Britain stays in or out — the question the referendum will decide. Because when the referendum takes place, the question is going to be, “What kind of E.U. are we either voting to stay in or voting to leave?” You could say, as a general statement, that the move towards integration works better when the British economy is doing well and the European economy is doing well.
But since 2008, we’ve been in crisis economically one way or another, exacerbated by the huge problems with Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and above all Greece. What you’re now looking at is an E.U. more marked by competitive nationalism between the main member states than a willingness to integrate. Now that, I would suggest, is by definition a less stable E.U. than it was before. A year or nine months from now, when we have the referendum, what will the E.U. look like?
Will it look continually less stable? Will the Greek crisis have come back again, as many people think it will? That will genuinely affect people’s choices in the U.K. about whether they want to stay in or stay out.
OR: Do you see the Scottish issue as dead for the moment? Do you think there’s a chance that we could see splintering of the U.K. as well?
Meyer: Let me put it like this: the Scottish issue is never over. It will be with us until the end of time. It’s been with us for as long as the history of the British Isles has been written, from the endless wars between the English and Scottish kings in the Middle Ages through to James I taking the throne of Britain in 1603 (he was already James VI of Scotland). You then have the Scottish Catholic pretenders to the English throne fighting great battles with the English monarchy in the 18th century. You then have the union of England and Scotland.
It has always been a highly productive relationship but a highly contentious one. Now fast forward to the day after that little historical essay. We had the referendum last year but it obviously has not settled things. It hasn’t settled things because we have in Scotland a government dominated by the Scottish National Party whose principle objective is to secure the independence of Scotland from the rest of the U.K. The issue is out there all the time. The danger that we faced last year — the danger of an imminent splintering of the U.K. — has gone away for a while. But when the issue of another referendum rises again, the danger of splintering will return. It’s always been there; it’s the permanent backdrop to British politics.
Sir Christopher Meyer served as the U.K.’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 to 2003. He is the author of Only Child, a memoir; Getting Our Way, a history of British diplomacy; and DC Confidential, about his diplomatic career.