Despite concerns about euroskeptics pressuring newly re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron to exit the EU, German EU parliamentarian Elmar Brok still thinks the EU can work things out with Great Britain.
It was clear from that beginning that the general election would gauge the growing divide between the British Isles and continental Europe. David Cameron, the former and the new prime minister, had promised his people that by 2017 there would be a referendum on membership in the European Union. No wonder Brussels has been carefully observing these elections. So has Elmar Brok, the German Christian Democrat (CDU) Member of European of Parliament and Chairman of the body's Committee on Foreign Affairs. Peter Kaspern spoke to him in this DLF Radio interview.
DLF: Mr. Brok, what is your prevailing feeling right now? As a Conservative, are you pleased about the Tories' victory, or are you, as a European politician, concerned about the referendum which now will certainly take place?
Brok: I think it is a combination of both. We have to understand that even though Cameron has won the majority by a narrow margin – and really, by one or two votes over the minimum needed. This means that euroskeptics can constantly blackmail him and that there is a looming threat of the British government also becoming more skeptical of the EU than it already is. That will, of course, be a great challenge in discussions in the next year or two.
What are you expecting? That London demands even more severe restructuring processes, even more ultimatums so that in the referendum the majority of voters decide to stay in the EU? Or how will David Cameron handle the situation now?
It is obvious that David Cameron is striving to stay in the European Union, but this is the way he appeases the skeptics. I have serious doubts about this because these skeptics, some of whom I know well, will demand more and more. They want to exit the European Union and I don't know how Cameron can stand up to them because he can no longer use a coalition partner's leanings to justify a compromise. And if you notice how the British Liberals - the pro-European force until now - were punished and how strong the divisions in the country have become with the Tories and the Labour Party practically ceasing to exist in Scotland because Scottish nationalists won [nearly] all the seats - then you know that domestic politics are in a very critical situation, so Great Britain is facing hard times.
How can Europe deal with this, if in fact the euroskeptics within his party will drive David Cameron to follow an increasingly harder line? What must the MEPs, the European Commission and the other EU member states do now?
The first thing we have to do is recognize the election result. There is no doubt that we must do this. We clearly have to say that reform is possible, but also make it clear that we will not let ourselves be blackmailed by one country.
Of course, it is right that we must try to keep the British from worrying about the developments and possible negative effects of the euro, which it does not wish to join, and we can surely conclude new agreements.
If Cameron's comments about wanting to have a better government and less legislation were meant seriously, then his wishes have actually been fulfilled by Juncker's Commission and their way of work – not wanting to legislate every detail, which we also thought was not good, and focus on the essentials.
Then, the British also demanded that the formulation in the contract "an even closer union" should be removed. By the way, former British Prime Minister John Major added that text to the Maastricht Treaty and maybe we can find an explanation for what it means, for I cannot believe that we will be able to change the contract. I think there is no way of working on a contractual change and fulfilling it. It would have to be ratified by 28 countries and that would take years and there would not be enough time until the referendum in 2017.
The question is whether there is room for negotiation beyond the contractual level, so that Cameron could be given the opportunity to carry out a referendum and himself then say that he wants to remain in the European Union.
Your main demand, which the British always propose and misappropriate, is to restrict the free movement of persons with reference to so-called poverty migration, i.e. from Romania and Bulgaria to the British. Many people in other EU states sympathize with this demand because they are asking for the same thing. How do you deal with that?
You are totally right. We must admit that this demand is real. But we also know from the judgment of the European Court of Justice in December that these possibilities already exist.
Whoever moves from one country to another in the European Union, but has no work, is not entitled to welfare and other social benefits, and thus, for this reason, I think that more attention should be paid to European possibilities stated in laws, which in turn, should be applied more strongly than before.
This is a discussion in other countries as well. I think clarification is important when we look at all the challenges ahead of us and I think that this is a way of getting along with the British. But is has to be absolutely clear, as the German Chancellor has said: The principle of free movement in Europe should not be put on the line. It is one of the four freedoms we have. That can only be changed contractually and Cameron cannot expect this to be changed contractually.
Now for the most difficult question of all: What are the chances of Great Britain remaining a member of the European Union? Are they greater after yesterday's election results or are they less than 50 percent?
I'm almost leaning towards a referendum and that's not bad because then the situation can clear up. The latest polls tell us that 60, 70 percent of Britons actually want to stay in the European Union. Now that Cameron has won the elections, he is in the position to eliminate the populism veiling discussions in Britain and to rationally present the actual facts. Differing interests can be defined and explained to the people and then a referendum can be held. I think Great Britain finally needs to clarify things for themselves and we would also like clarity from Great Britain, so that the perpetual indecisiveness that is increasingly constraining us can be put aside.
This interview was conducted for DLF Radio by Peter Kapern.