Following 18 months of shadow-boxing and what senior diplomats in Brussels called the “phoney war” over David Cameron’s EU referendum gamble, the prime minister’s second-term mandate clears the air. He will now have to come clean on what concessions he hopes to win from the rest of the EU in order to keep Britain in the union.
“The ball is very much in the court of the UK now,” said a senior EU official. “It’s up to the British to define what they want.”
Cameron will have his first opportunity to sound out his fellow EU leaders in two weeks’ time when a special EU summit takes place in Latvia. But the expectation in EU capitals is that the prime minister will unfold his shopping list at a Brussels summit on 21 June.
“He will set out his strategy and demands for the referendum negotiations,” said a second senior EU official.
Angela Merkel, who fervently wants to keep the UK in the EU but is unwilling to make major concessions to facilitate that, will be central to the negotiations. Opinion in Germany was split on the implications for Europe of the Conservative triumph.
Der Spiegel described the Tory victory as “bad news for Europe” but predicted that Cameron would be a weak second-term prime minister held to ransom on Europe by his own Europhobic backbenchers.
“Cameron will be even more susceptible to blackmail from within his own party than he has been in the last five years,” it wrote.
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung took the opposite tack. “The European partners can be sure that Cameron will come into these negotiations with renewed self-confidence. He will demand concessions,” it said. “What will the German chancellor, who wants to keep Britain in the EU, offer him? How far will she go to meet him?”
Cameron received effusive congratulations from EU centre-right leaders such as Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France. But neither of them dwelt on the impact on the EU of the Tory win.
“I’m convinced the new government will continue to contribute to the strengthening of bilateral relations between Spain and Britain, as well as our necessary political consensus in the EU,” said Rajoy, despite bitter differences between the two countries over Gibraltar.
Bruno Bernard, an activist for Sarkozy’s UMP and a political consultant, said there were clear lessons to be drawn for the centre-right French party. “The big picture from the UMP will be very much that this shows if you reform the country and do a good job on the economy, you win elections. This will embolden those who say it’s all about the economy and nothing else,” he told the Guardian.
Sophia in ’t Veld, the deputy leader of the Liberals in the European parliament, described the election outcome as “worrying” for Europe. “If David Cameron has the illusion that he on his own can dictate the terms for a new EU treaty, I think he is mistaken. He may want to renegotiate the UK’s membership and call a referendum. What is there left to renegotiate exactly?”
Merkel, as well as Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, have made it clear that Cameron’s challenge to freedom of movement within the EU is a no-go area for negotiation and also that they do not want to reopen the EU treaties to accommodate the British. But they would be willing to tinker with so-called “secondary legislation” governing the social security and welfare benefits available to EU citizens migrating from their own country to another EU state.
On Friday Tusk said he was counting on Cameron to fight for Britain to remain in the EU, saying the UK played a central role in ensuring Europe had a “common sense agenda”.
“I count on the new British government making the case for the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. In that I stand ready to help,” Tusk said in a statement. “I am deeply convinced that there is no better life outside the European Union, for any country. A better EU is in the interest not only of Britain but of every member state.”
Julian Rappold, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said: “There’s some leeway still to grant some minor concessions, but I think the German government has made quite clear what the red lines are and to what extent they will concede to the UK. Merkel has clear limits about what she is willing to put on the table.”
Scepticism about Cameron’s ability to secure a deal from the other Europeans that he could sell as a breakthrough to his own backbenchers and to the anti-European rightwing media in Britain was echoed by the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
“Cameron’s ability to deliver on these concessions will be constrained by political dynamics in other EU capitals,” it said. “Cameron is going to find himself squeezed between the impossibility of his party’s demands and the serious limitations imposed upon him by the rest of Europe.”
Eastern European officials, meanwhile, hope that with the election over, there will be an end to what they see as populist immigrant scapegoating in the UK.
“Brexit is not the ideal scenario for anyone,” said Radu Magdin, an adviser to the Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta. “Romanians have some key expectations in the way that they are viewed in the UK. Now that the election is over, it’s important to put politics behind us and work together to end immigrant bashing.”
In Greece, the media made much of the SNP’s strong showing, with Ta Nea, the most-read centre-left daily, leading its web edition with the headline “Scottish ‘tsunami’ in British elections.” But there was little reaction from politicians on what the result would mean for Europe. Writing in the conservative daily Kathimerini on the eve of the poll, the political commentator Nikos Konstandaras said that whatever the outcome it would “test the limits of [EU] membership and the union’s cohesion”.
He said Britain, like Greece, would play a crucial role in determining “the future of the greatest experiment in democracy that the world has known”.
Additional reporting by Arthur Neslen in Brussels, Louise Osborne in Berlin, Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and Helena Smith in Athens
This article was written by Ian Traynor Europe editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th May 2015 13.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010