Has the refugee crisis pushed Britain one step closer to a “Brexit”?

The refugee crisis will make the campaign to keep Britain in Europe much more complicated to win. 

When the refugee crisis hit the headlines in Europe in spring 2015, David Cameron quickly made it clear that the UK would not accept any of the refugees that had arrived at Europe’s shores. The government argued that Britain’s contribution lay in the humanitarian aid it gave to Syria – indeed larger than by any other European country – rather than in accepting migrants among its citizens. Public opinion and political pressure eventually forced him to accept to take 20 000 refugees over 5 years; but this number remains low compared to other European partners. Britain still refuses to take part in any EU-wide distribution scheme.

From the perspective of Cameron’s political advantage at home – Government insiders feel his plan is working. Even though Cameron’s early stance ran the risk of making the UK an outcast on the European stage, London has largely remained out of the firing line. For a while it looked as if the UK would end up bracketed with the likes of Victor Orban and other EU troublemakers, but Berlin made a conscious decision to focus on the central and eastern European countries that threatened to block an EU deal on quotas and not be too critical of the UK – partly in light of the complex relationship between the UK’s forthcoming referendum and migration. Most other countries followed suit. Contrary to the situation in continental Europe, very few refugees are arriving on UK shores. Attempts to prevent arrivals in the UK have been relatively successful, in no small part thanks to French co-operation in securing the border at Calais, where numbers of asylum seekers with the UK as their desired destination grew significantly through the summer of 2015.

What is more, the British focus on the foreign policy implications of the Syrian crisis has also become much more widely shared. The idea to ‘deal with the problem at its source’ is increasingly accepted. British officials have been very active on the foreign policy front, thinking out loud about things such as establishing safe zones to where non-refugees can be send back to and repurposing 10 billion of EU development spending to tackle migration from Africa between now and 2020. Britain also wants the EU to step in with a reconstruction and security offer in Libya once a national unity government has formed.

But from a longer term perspective, and in particular in view of the British referendum on the membership in the European Union, things are much less positive.

The scale of suffering and numbers from Syria alone (where the numbers of the four million refugees could be further swelled by some of the 8 million internally displaced citizens) make a mockery of British commitments.  Moreover, it seems perverse at a time when Britain is asking for solidarity over its EU renegotiation to show so little support for its European partners.  Even though other member states appear to have collectively decided not to put the spotlight on Britain as they realise how politically sensitive this issue is for the domestic debate, the lack of solidarity from Great Britain has certainly been noted in European capitals. Following last week’s refugee crisis summit, French President François Hollande took a clear dig at British policy when he said that “there are countries – I am not going to name them here because we are here to work with everybody – that are not shouldering their moral obligations”.  

The refugee crisis will also make the campaign much more complicated to win. The referendum of Britain’s EU membership will largely be a battle between two topics: migration and the economy. Questions about Brussels ‘red tape’ or voting majorities may appeal to political pundits but aren’t of interest to the majority of the voters in the UK. Supporters of the In-campaign will argue that the real question of the referendum is the economy. But this will be more difficult if the refugee crisis dominates the headlines, particularly when they trumpet Europe’s failure on a daily basis.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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