Tipping Point

David Cameron devoted copious amounts of time to negotiating the terms of his insignificant EU deal, yet with public concern growing over the worsening refugee crisis, perhaps his focus should have been elsewhere

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. (Photo: Mstyslav Chernov)

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. (Photo: Mstyslav Chernov)

As European leaders tirelessly negotiated the terms of David Cameron’s EU renegotiation package in February, the issue they would have preferred to be discussing was the ongoing refugee crisis crippling the continent. Disagreement over in-work benefits appears trivial when the EU’s founding principle – the free movement of people – disintegrates as a rapidly increasing number of states deem the system unworkable during such a profound crisis.

Instead of slowing down, it would appear that the crisis is escalating uncontrollably. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that over one million migrants made the journey to Europe in 2015. This is in contrast with the 280,000 the year before. And this year, more than 100,000 refugees and migrants have already arrived in Europe so far, according to the IOM. Extraordinarily, this is triple the rate of arrivals over the first half of 2015; and it took until the end of June last year to reach this figure.

Undoubtedly, these numbers demonstrate that we are set see a continuation of the humanitarian crisis we witnessed last year as a result of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. And as in 2015, most refugees will leave their homes during the summer months, when it is most safe.

As a result, the news headlines during the summer will continue to feature the worsening refugee crisis as vast numbers seek to escape war and destitution in search of safer lives in Europe. All this, of course, will coincide with the EU referendum, now confirmed to take place in just over a month, on June 23.

David Cameron delivers EU statement outside Downing Street, confirming his EU deal and the date of the referendum, June 23 (Photo: Flickr)

David Cameron delivers EU statement outside Downing Street, confirming his EU deal and the date of the referendum, June 23 (Photo: Flickr)

This timing could not be more significant in terms of possibly altering the result of the EU referendum. Attitudes towards refugees have been hardening across Europe following terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and the public remain deeply concerned about the ongoing refugee crisis and immigration as a whole.

According to a poll released by Sky News this month, undecided voters are more concerned about immigration than the economy, with 28 per cent concerned about the impact membership of the EU has on immigration, while just 15 per cent cited the economy as the greatest concern.

Therefore, it is entirely conceivable that as we approach the date of the referendum the British public will grow more hostile to a European Union which appears increasingly unable to deal with the ongoing refugee crisis, thus improving the chances of Britain voting to leave the EU.

However, it appears that David Cameron is attempting to prevent such a situation from unfolding, recently saying that “we have an absolutely rock-solid opt-out from these things. There’s no prospect of Britain joining a common asylum process in Europe.” The problem for the Prime Minister is that the EU’s plans for a centralised system in the future helps reaffirm the narrative that the European Union will only become closer as time progresses, helping bolster the “Leave” campaign. And even if David Cameron insists we have an opt-out, voters will remain wary of such an idea and the overall direction of the European Union.

Indeed, there remains the possibility that the European Union begins to effectively deal with the crisis after many months of failure, yet with the Turkey-EU refugee deal only just clinging to existence, this scenario seems increasingly unlikely. Moreover, Turkey, currently sheltering 2.7 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, cannot deal with this crisis alone. With three times the number of people entering Europe this year as opposed to the last, the European Union may still be forced to implement some sort of scheme to fairly distribute refugees among member states in the near future. This prospect, along with the EU’s plans for a centralised asylum process in the future, would surely spell disaster for the “Remain” campaign given the electorate’s current concerns surrounding immigration.

How the refugee crisis plays out in the coming months could be crucial in deciding the outcome of the EU referendum. With the public already concerned about immigration, another summer packed with headlines concerning the refugee crisis will surely persuade some to turn their backs on the European project all together and vote for Brexit.

David Cameron may have felt it necessary at the time to spend weeks fretting over his so-called renegotiation, but if he loses the referendum (and most likely his job, too), he will surely look back on these past few months and question why he didn’t devote more time early on concentrating on the more pressing issue of mass migration into Europe.

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