View from London: Peripheral but wary

The UK used its opt-out on refugee quotas, but crisis may have far-reaching consequences for its future

The UK was peripheral to the EU interior ministers’ meeting on 22 September that agreed a deal on national quotas to relocate 120,000 refugees. Since May 2015, David Cameron’s government, with Home Secretary Teresa May as its tough-talking mouthpiece, has simply refused to take part in European burden-sharing on the refugee crisis, however bad the situation in its neighbouring states became. The UK has held firm to its position that as a non-Schengen member it is not obliged to take part in the quota scheme, and has announced separately that it will resettle 20,000 refugees from camps outside Europe over the next five years. Ireland and Denmark, on the other hand, who also have the opt–out option on the European scheme, have instead chosen to take part, in solidarity with EU partners.

What is important for the UK about the quota decision was not so much the deal itself, but the fallout from the way it was done. The deal was pushed through by a majority vote, which was interpreted by some states (notably the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, who voted against it) as having been imposed by Germany. The UK cannot escape the effects of this.

The UK’s key European priority over the coming months is the “renegotiation” process that Cameron has launched to try to achieve an EU reform package that he can sell as a better deal for Britain than the status quo in a referendum on EU membership. The coming months are crucial to the UK as Cameron tries to negotiate the deal with European partners, but privately, EU officials are increasingly exasperated that Cameron is not laying out his list of demands clearly.

What is the link to the refugee crisis? First, the UK needs the goodwill of other member states in this renegotiation process to help Cameron deliver the change he has promised to his domestic audience. Unfortunately, goodwill towards the European project is severely lacking in Central and Eastern Europe after the bruising row over quotas, and it is unlikely that the states who are feeling the most bruised will want to jump straight into further difficult discussions anytime soon. They may be especially reluctant to do this for the sake of the UK, which has not been seen to pull its weight in terms of finding responses to the refugee crisis.

Secondly, and more specifically, our analysis in the Britain in Europe Scorecard shows that other EU states are broadly supportive of Cameron’s expected demands on trade, the single market, and a greater role for national parliaments, but that some of the expected UK demands around access to welfare for intra-EU migrants will likely be harder for other governments to accept, impacting as they do on the fundamental EU principle of freedom of movement. Given the heightened sensitivity around this principle after the quota row, the UK is going to have to tread very carefully in how it approaches this issue in the renegotiation process. While ECFR’s network of national researchers is reporting that in some quarters (including the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland and Ireland) there may now be some more sympathy if the UK calls for increased restrictions on access to welfare systems for non-native EU workers, given the huge pressures that some EU states are feeling from extra-EU immigration at the moment, other countries such as Germany, which has defended the principle of movement within the EU so strongly through the refugee quota discussion, may be even more reluctant to make concessions. Again, it will be especially reluctant to do this for the UK, which is currently facing far less immigration pressure – either absolute or per capita, although domestic political pressure from right-wing party UKIP and elsewhere is running high – than other EU states such as Germany, Sweden, and those on the EU’s external borders.

The heads of state summit on September 23 focussed on the external dimension of the refugee crisis, where the UK may have a more positive contribution to make at EU level – and we are likely to see it try to do so over the coming weeks. On issues such as redirection of aid to tackle the origins of the refugee crisis in Africa, and to support host countries in the region such as Turkey, the UK is on the front foot in discussions, having called for this ahead of the summit. It is also doing some detailed thinking around the idea of safe zones for the return of failed asylum seekers, and other aspects of the post-summit announcement that require further flesh on their bones. However, as we argued ahead of the summit, efforts on the external dimension of the refugee crisis are likely to result in little change in refugee flows to Europe in the coming months and years if there is not a serious diplomatic push at international level to try to achieve peace in Syria and the region. Here too the UK could play a central role, but the signs of energy for real diplomatic re-engagement on this are, so far, sadly thin on the ground.

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


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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