Warning from Europe: you can’t always get what you want

David Cameron and Angela Merkel

Eleven years ago Poland threw in its lot, somewhat nervously, with the west and joined the European Union. But in the prime minister’s chancellery building in Warsaw – once home to the imperial Russian army’s cadet corps – no one now questions the wisdom of its decision.

“Communism left us doubting our abilities,” admits Rafał Trzaskowski, the country’s secretary of state for European affairs. “We did not know how quickly we would adapt our mentality to the capitalist economy after so many years of communism.”

He recalls initial apprehension among Polish farmers and the governing classes. “We weren’t sure how well we would use the EU money, whether we were going to do it the Greek way and waste some of it, or whether we would use the potential offered by EU funds, like the Irish and the Portuguese did, to modernise our country.”

All that seems an age ago now. Poland spent and invested well, and took advantage of the vast EU market that had opened up to its south, west and north: “The past eight years have seen 25 percentage points of GDP growth. No one in the rest of Europe has been able to match that.”

Schooled in the United States, fluent in five European languages, and with a scholarship from Oxford University on his CV, Trzaskowski is the embodiment of a confident and outward-looking new Poland.

It is not just that his country is doing well economically. “It is about having an influence over your own destiny,” he says, exposing a vast divide between his and the UK government’s attitudes towards to the EU. “Membership of the European Union reinforces that because we have an influence over what is happening in the union. We have a much greater influence over the external world than if we had stood alone in the centre of Europe, which used to be our geopolitical curse for centuries. Now Poland is there playing in the first league with the big ones, co-deciding on issues of utmost importance for everyone, from geopolitical issues and security to internal issues of great importance like competitiveness, energy policy or the digital single market.”

Ten days ago Trzaskowski met David Cameron in Warsaw when the prime minister embarked on a tour of EU capitals to discuss changes to the UK’s membership which he wants to negotiate before calling in an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. Cameron said he wanted to keep the UK in the EU. But to the Poles the idea that “the Brits”, as Trzaskowksi calls them, could be opening the door to a possible exit from the EU seems beyond comprehension.

“Leave the union and you will see how much control you will have over your own destiny,” he says. “Look at the examples of the Norwegians or the Swiss, who participate in the internal market but have virtually nothing to say when it comes to the decision-making [about how it operates]. Their peculiarities and sensitivities are simply not taken into account to the extent they would wish. They have to subscribe to the body of law that others decide for them.

“It is an illusion that Great Britain can be as important as it is now, standing alone on the global stage. Britain is important for the United States because it is an important player in the European Union. If Britain leaves, it is not going to be an important player in Europe any more and, by extension, in the world.”

Cameron has barely begun the long, difficult task of renegotiation – but is already running into a concerted, determined counteroffensive from other EU leaders who warn of the consequences of a UK exit on the one hand, while insisting they will not be bullied into accepting all his demands for reform to help him avoid a Brexit, on the other.

He wants to cut EU regulation, seeks a bigger role for national parliaments, is battling to extricate the UK from the EU commitment to “ever closer union” and, most controversially, wants to reduce the number of EU migrants who come to live and work in the UK by banning them from claiming social benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit, or getting on the list for social housing, until they have had a job and have paid taxes here for four years.

Rafał Trzaskowski, Poland's secretary of state for European affairs: 'A fundamental EU principle is the right to free movement of labour.'

It is this last demand – which was spelled out in the Conservatives’ election manifesto – that most enrages the Poles, 700,000 of whom live and work in the UK. Poland will veto any such change.

“If it is discriminatory, like the ideas under which everyone who comes to Britain for four years, even though he or she pays the same taxes, will not be entitled to social benefits, we will not agree to it. Obviously such ideas are in contravention of the treaty itself,” Trzaskowski says, adding that a fundamental EU principle is the right to free movement of labour.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, has also said his country will block any “special status” for the UK. While there have been more supportive, if noncommittal, public comments from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in private the Germans take the same line as the Poles about restricting benefits for those in work. The message – sometimes delivered in public, but mostly in private – is strikingly similar from Paris to Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw. Everyone wants to try to help Cameron, but there are limits beyond which they will not go.

Last week the former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, warned the UK against “wishful thinking”. The EU, he pointed out, had other more urgent issues than dealing endlessly with the British problem: “Angela Merkel will do nothing which will endanger the basic principles of the common market of the EU. And she has a much bigger problem to address – how to find a compromise in the currency union with Greece. That’s her priority number one now.”

Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a leading figure in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said that the UK’s demand to restrict social benefits was not achievable within Cameron’s timescale, if at all. Trzaskowski adds: “I think we have to be frank with the British people when we talk about their future in the European Union. Many people in Europe want to be accommodating … but if the demands are too much, too extreme, they are not going to be met. You cannot keep all the goodies and forget about the costs.”

There is a key distinction, EU leaders and diplomats say, between UK demands for stricter limits on the amount of time EU citizens can spend in the UK – or any other member state – when they don’t have a job (which can, they say, potentially be negotiated) and the insistence on limiting social payments to those in work, which can’t, without treaty change and the agreement of all 28 countries, which would be all but impossible to achieve.

Back home, Cameron is under pressure of the opposite sort as the referendum nears. Those who want to quit the European Union are already painting a utopian picture of life outside. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan wound the clock forward to 2020 last week to a wondrous world in which this country was flourishing in splendid isolation from a “rump union” in “genteel decline”. The UK would have forged overseas relationships while remaining a full member of the EU single market “covered by free movement of goods, services and capital”.

What was not mentioned was that the UK would almost certainly not be allowed to remain a member of the single market unless it had also agreed to be bound by rules on free movement of labour. It would have to accept EU migrants and pay their social benefits just as Norway does now.

In the Tory party, Eurosceptic MPs are on high alert for any sign that Cameron might give ground and water down his demands. The former Europe minister, David Davis, told this newspaper that Cameron should take advantage of his strength, having won the recent election, and demand more rather than less.

Pressure is coming from Labour, too. The favourite to succeed Ed Miliband as leader, Andy Burnham, says that he will not back Cameron over his renegotiation unless benefits are denied to EU entrants for at least two years, whether they are in work or not. As one former Tory minister who has dealt with EU negotiations put it: “Cameron is under pressure to deliver more from his own party, and also now from Labour. Other European leaders can see that and won’t give in to it.”

Meanwhile, pro-Europeans are beginning to marshal their forces. A powerful cross-party group of peers including former diplomats, businessmen and ex-civil servants is preparing to demand that the parliamentary bill that lays out the terms of the in/out referendum also spells out the options for the UK if it were to leave. Would it try to negotiate membership of the single market, like Norway or Switzerland, and if so under what terms? How much would it still pay towards the EU budget, an issue yet to be discussed? What would be the consequences for British farmers of leaving the common agricultural policy? How free would British citizens be to travel across EU borders, do business in other EU countries, and hold second homes on the Costas?

Others in the House of Lords, including Lord O’Donnell, say the Treasury and/or the Office for Budgetary Responsibility should conduct a detailed analysis of the financial implications of leaving the EU, analysing each of the alternative options. They argue that the British public should not be asked the in/out question unless they know what “out” would mean.

Britain's prime minister David Cameron, left, at a world war one commemoration in 2014 with French president François Hollande, German chancellor Angela Merkel and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, who is now president of the European Council.

Every European meeting that the prime minister attends will now be judged at home according to how much progress he makes. The risk for Cameron is that, in response to domestic pressures, he sets the bar too high. EU leaders will then block British demands, Cameron will have failed to deliver, and Ukip will reap the benefits, stoking up support for a vote to leave.

Trzaskowski says that if the UK works with the European commission and European parliament and wins support for reform among the 27 other EU countries in defined areas – such as new rules for migrants who don’t have jobs – then it could make progress. But if it just unilaterally demands opt-outs and special treatment in areas central to the EU’s operations, it will fail. “If Britain says ‘I don’t like the working time directive, I need an opt-out; I don’t like provisions on tobacco because they hamper my sovereignty, I want an opt-out’, it is not going to happen.

“If Great Britain can come with a shopping list, everyone will come with their shopping list, then the whole thing will unravel.”

Everybody wants to keep the UK as a member, but there are lines that the Poles and others will not cross. “It is of fundamental interest for the European Union to keep Britain in and it is a fundamental interest of Poland to keep Britain in, because we are on the same page on so many issues … but we are not willing to pay a high price for it. That is the shortest answer.”

And it makes no difference that Cameron has just won a general election. “We cannot say simply, we sit around the table and you say this is my manifesto and I won the elections on the basis of it, so cave in and accept it. It is not going to happen.”

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