Like the rest of the EU, London was shocked by the attacks on Brussels on 22 March. COBRA – the Cabinet’s civil contingencies committee – was convened on the day of the attacks and though the threat level in the UK was not raised above severe, where it had been for nine months, the number of police on the streets in London was increased.
But equally shocking in London was the speed with which the ‘Out’ campaign jumped on the opportunity to argue that this was further evidence of the risks of remaining in the EU. Mike Hookem MEP, UKIP’s defence spokesman, put out a statement on the morning of the attacks arguing that “this horrific act of terrorism shows that Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security. The head of Europol said in February that 5,000 jihadists are at large in the EU having slipped in from Syria.”
Although David Cameron, home secretary Teresa May, and Alan Johnson (Labour lead for the ‘In’ Campaign) were quick to condemn this use of the horrific events as a political tool, this reaction unfortunately plays into a longer standing narrative about security and freedom of movement that has been allowed to play out with insufficient challenge in the context of the debate on the UK’s relationship with the EU. The lines between Schengen (of which the UK is not a member), freedom of movement for EU citizens (under which it has obligations), migration from outside the EU and the refugee crisis are seriously blurred in UK public perceptions. As a result the negative implications of these issues dominate the discussion, and support for freedom of movement within the EU specifically is low. A Yougov poll conducted in November 2015 found that “a majority (58%) of British people say that British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian citizens should enjoy similar freedom of movement rules as currently exist between EU member nations. Only 19% oppose. In contrast, 46% support current EU freedom of movement rules, while 35% oppose”.
While David Cameron is now leading the ‘Stronger In’ campaign for EU membership ahead of the UK referendum on 23 June, in the six month renegotiation process in the run up to the EU deal in February, his strong emphasis on the ‘migration and welfare basket’ appeared to be designed to try to appease the concerns of the UK population, which were based on confused distinctions between intra and extra EU migration. Inevitably, the renegotiation deal did little to assuage the arguments of the ‘Out’ campaign which fused these issues, and now this remains one of the crucial battlegrounds of the referendum campaign — which the ‘Stronger In’ campaign is fearful about tackling head on.
But despite their avoidance of engaging in this toxic argument, one of the key concerns of the pro-EU campaigners over the coming weeks will be to project an image of control on terrorism, the refugee crisis and management of the EU’s external borders in general. The UK government’s messages of solidarity with Brussels were genuine – London has also known the pain of a terrorist attack at the heart of its commuter system in the July bombings in 2005. But it is also against the backdrop of the run up to the referendum that Cameron’s promises to work together with EU partners on terrorism, support to the European Asylum Support Office and on tackling the root causes of migration, should be understood.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.