The focus right now, understandably, is on Europe’s migration crisis. It has been described reasonably as the worst such emergency on the continent since the end of the Second World War, when millions displaced by the conflict tried to find their way home or set off in search of shelter and security.
In Budapest, thousands are camped outside the railway station. Wicked people traffickers continue to ply their trade and in Austria a group of Afghan men had a narrow escape when police spotted the vehicle they were travelling in. It had no air supply, with the windows and doors welded shut to prevent detection or premature escape. The Romanian driver fled and was picked up by police later. The flood of people continues along Europe’s southern borders and it is even intruding on our relaxed, cosmopolitan, modern European lifestyle. Eurostar services were in chaos last night, with thousands of passengers either delayed or stuck on trains because desperate migrants had clambered onto the tracks. On Twitter, justifiably furious passengers told of being trapped in the dark with the electricity off. This is only days after the French authorities assured the media that the tracks around Calais are secure. Clearly, they are not.
Although the human cost and implications are the priority, soon politics will intrude as voters start to look to their leaders in the hope of hearing practical answers to the great question of the moment. If the migrant crisis is still going (and it is hard to see how it won’t be) when the British parties have their annual conferences in a few weeks, questions of free movement, migration, border control and the competence of ministers and suitability of institutions will dominate no matter how many speeches Tory cabinet ministers are instructed to make saying Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to security and all that Britons hold dear. The media will say fine, we got that bit about vest-wearing Corbyn and his extremism, but what about the migrant emergency? What is the government going to do? What exactly does this mess mean for the UK’s renegotiation with the EU?
There David Cameron, the Tory leader, has a problem, and something of an opportunity.
In The Times Red Box email this morning, Philip Webster had a terrific analysis of the condition of Mr Cameron’s European policy. It appears to be in tatters. It is reported that the UK government has even given up on getting back the UK opt-out on employment and social laws. What is left? I ask again: what are the UK’s final demands in this historic renegotiation that ministers have engineered? Does anyone know? Will Britain be left asking for nicer chairs at EU summits?
Now, embarrassingly, the Electoral Commission has forced the Prime Minister to change the wording of the referendum question because it feared that the Yes/No variant was skewed in favour of the In campaign.
Number 10 is also reportedly ready to retreat on the rules surrounding purdah, following backbench pressure from some Tory MPs who are concerned that the government might be allowed to pump out pro-In information during the final weeks of the referendum campaign.
Number 10 is also under pressure on what restrictions will be placed on cabinet ministers. It seems unthinkable that any cabinet minister who is for “Leave” rather than “Remain” (as we will have to get used to thinking of the referendum question) will be forced to either resign or shut up during the campaign. Yet that is the position as of now.
Already one can see how friendships are going to be rent asunder and deep divisions exposed on the Tory side in this campaign. Surely, normal government and cabinet responsibility will have to be suspended for the final month of the campaign, allowing colleagues to campaign on whichever side their conscience tells them to support?
There is, though, a potential way out for Cameron, the great escapologist who usually leaves it until five minutes to midnight before getting it together. Although, to be fair, his greatest escape, that executed in the 2015 general election, was more than a year in the planning and happened because Cameron compromised and followed Lynton Crosby’s recommended strategy.
Cameron will have to be equally hard headed if he wants to win on Europe, and that involves offering a deal that Germany and other European powers can agree to. Angela Merkel’s government is reportedly angry at other countries for not doing enough to take refugees from countries such as Syria and the toys out of the pram briefing is that Cameron has been a very bad boy indeed.
This is pathetic stuff from the Germans. David won’t get anything because Angela is angry with David for not doing what Angela says, and she might even start talking to Francois again if David doesn’t start being nice, sharpish.
How about if Cameron cut through the nonsense and said – in his conference speech and in major speeches in Europe – that the current model of the EU is kaput. It is in no-one’s interests, other than those of Vladimir Putin and ISIS, for Europe to fail, but let’s face it the current model of the EU is not fit for purpose.
Not only is the migration crisis a human catastrophe, the line in an emergency between economic migration, legal migration, refugees and asylum seekers is becoming hopelessly blurred to the detriment of genuine refugees. Can Europe really cope with unlimited migration, most of it economic? No. The EU needs a complete overhaul to cope with challenges that are different from those that faced the continent in the late 20th century.
The Brits should, calmly, put it all on the table for negotiation involving all member countries. Really horrify the Brussels crowd. Merkel herself warns that free movement itself is at risk, so why not say that Europe needs a new dispensation with more realistic and tougher rules on migration, pooled border protection on the southern frontier involving processing/landing happening off shore, greater help for genuine refugees fleeing conflicts, and a frank discussion and resolution of the unlimited free movement within the EU which is a lovely idea that looks, sadly, incompatible with a great transcontinental migration underway at a time of rapid economic change. Cameron could say: let’s redesign the EU properly, allowing sovereign countries to properly take back a wide range of powers in return for a new settlement on borders, migration and security. A new equivalent of Nato, created to protect Europe’s security, may be needed to protect Europe’s southern borders.
I don’t think Cameron will do any of this, although anything is possible if he is in a tight spot. I suspect instead that Team Cameron/Osborne will try to get through the burning building with their fingers crossed, hoping it doesn’t collapse on their heads, which will make the British referendum a very clear choice between remaining in the failing EU as it is and leaving for a crack at something else.