Martin Flanagan: Expect Brexit battle to get ugly

Lord Hague has been slapped down by Eurosceptics. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Lord Hague has been slapped down by Eurosceptics. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
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A SWATHE of the business community, although not all of it, is becoming nervous that the case for Brexit has gathered momentum. This pessimistic view for those who want to stay in the European Union has been fed by David Cameron’s plangently underwhelming attempts to persuade EU leaders to give him enough concessions to argue the case in a riven Conservative party for the UK staying in the trading bloc.

It is not just that Angela Merkel et al – in particular a vocal Polish government – have bluntly rejected the Prime Minister’s demand (well, suggestion) that migrants from the EU to the UK should not be able to claim welfare benefits for four years.

That always looked like a non-starter, merely a negotiating gambit, similar to a trade union asking for an 8 per cent pay rise in the secret hope that they will get an inflation-busting 4.5 per cent.

Cameron has made it clear to EU leaders that he is prepared to be “flexible” on the benefits issue, which looks like code for “I need help here to extricate myself from this mess”. The trouble is that the EU, while making the right noises about wanting the UK to stay in and trying to address its concerns, has not offered any crumbs from the table, never mind something that looks substantive.

The mood music has changed, and organisations like the Confederation of British Industry, British Chambers of Commerce and Institute of Directors have noticed it. The pendulum of opinion has not swung so far that Brexit looks the likelier outcome. But it has, almost imperceptibly, become more of a close-run thing.

Hence, former Conservative leaders Lord Hague and Sir John Major making their pro-EU membership interventions, and being slapped down by arch-Eurosceptics like John Redwood for their pains.

I expect the debate to get dirtier as politicians and business organisations realise the decision on Brexit hangs in the balance. Business knows it nearly totally misjudged the Scottish independence referendum issue by only making its views on the desirability of Scotland remaining a part of the UK in the final weeks of the campaign.

That is clearly not happening this time. Conversely, some of the business world believes that Britain would not suffer from exiting, that trade and commercial agreements would stay largely in place because we are too important a trading partner with the EU block for them to cold-shoulder us. The EU sceptics will make this point with increasing vim in 2016.

Cameron is on a sticky wicket. It is becoming clearer that the EU is not minded to play ball on meaningful concessions on inward UK migration, even against the backdrop of its own disturbingly porous borders. And one sometimes suspects Tory “Out” hardliners would not be satisfied anyway with anything short of migrant quotas and an end to EU freedom of movement. «