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A stern finger wag for Britain

Bernd Riegert / sbOctober 20, 2014

As one of his final acts in office, EU chief Jose Manuel Barroso has issued a stern finger wag to Britain and its anti-Europe politics. If the UK left the union, it would be a "historic mistake," the EU head warned.

Chatham House Rede EU Präsident Barroso
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, leaving office next month after 10 years, spoke on the BBC's Sunday Politics show, and again on Monday at the Chatham House think tank in London, saying the UK could be "facing a choice - to stay or leave the European Union."

If Britain were to leave, he said, it would be "a historic mistake."

British Prime Minister David Cameron hit back during a visit to a Ford car factory in the east of London on Monday, saying that his "boss" was the British people and that "what we need in Britain is a renegotiation of our relationship with the European Union and then a referendum where the British people decide 'Do we stay in this reformed organization or do we leave it?'"

For now, both have agreed to disagree. Before leaving office, Barroso is making it clear what he thinks of the British prime minister's Europe politics - that David Cameron's euroskepticism is pushing Britons away from the EU.

Instead of resolutely confronting the euroskeptics in his own party and members of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the prime minister is allowing an anti-Europe sentiment to fester and spread on the island. The country was thus slipping further towards a "Brexit" - a British exit out of the EU. But that would have catastrophic consequences for the British economy, Barroso warned.

Cameron in Brussels
Politically, Cameron is stuck between a rock and a hard placeImage: Reuters

"My experience is that you can never win a debate from the defensive. We saw in Scotland that you actually need to go out and make the positive case. In the same way, if you support continued membership of the EU you need to say what Europe stands for and why it is in the British interest to be part of it," Barroso said, referring to the recent vote on Scottish independence.

Disunity in the union

Behind this reprimand lies the next fight between Brussels and London: the prime minister has announced that he wants to limit the number of EU immigrants in the country. But according to the EU law, he can't; the Lisbon Treaty guarantees European citizens freedom of establishment throughout the union.

Cameron is under pressure, not least due to the recent wins gained by the opposition UKIP. The right-wing populist party has made immigration to the UK from Eastern Europe one of the central themes of its election campaign. And it's now pressuring Cameron to act. Members of his conservative Tory Party are worried after UKIP won its first seat in parliament in a by-election. The conservatives now fear that in November, another member of UKIP could move into Westminster.

Against the backdrop of current politics, Cameron announced he would reduce the number of immigrants. Due to fears over Britain's benefits system, according to reports, he wants to prevent new immigrants - mostly from new EU member countries in the east - from entering the workforce.

Romanian bus in Western Europe
London wants to limit immigration from Eastern European countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Cameron has already brought up the idea of pulling the emergency brake on immigration, which he wanted to work out with Brussels. But Brussels is adamant: While there can be agreements on limitations to welfare and social security claims and similar things, simply closing the border to a particular group of EU migrants would be a violation of European agreements.

Propaganda for an exit

Barroso's criticism is also meant to be a plea towards London: He argues that Brussels has always tried to accommodate special wishes from the UK. Barroso saved billions of euros in the EU budget and implemented a number of reforms.

But this plea is bound to fall on deaf ears in Britain. Facing a close race with the opposition Labour, the Tories wants to bypass the competition by appealing to some of their supporters and feigning its own euroskepticism.

According to recent surveys, around half of British people are in favor of leaving the EU. Last year, the majority wanted to stay in the EU. It seems then that UKIP and Tory propaganda is proving to be effective.