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David StewartFebruary 19, 2016

This weekend is crunch time for Europe. It's crunch time for those who want Britain to leave the EU (“Brexit”) just as much as it is for those organising the vote, in the forthcoming referendum, to stay in. It's crunch time for the European Union because no matter what happens, it's highly unlikely to stay the same after the intense talks happening right now. It's crunch time for the struggling Euro currency which might not survive major structural damage to the political union that brought it into being. It's crunch time for Britain because, as argued elsewhere in these pages, a British vote to leave, in a referendum now widely expected to come as early as June this year, looks highly likely to fracture the three-century old British Union of nations (and the north-east corner of a nearby nation). It's crunch time for the Tories in Britain, never even remotely united over Europe, who face further internal division, which they won't be able to hide, over this perennial headache. Add in the refugee catastrophe, which won't go away; we are beginning to see that the Schengen-Treaty settlement permitting free movement across most member states is also under severe strain.

The British Tory Government won the country’s most recent general election promising to hold an in/out referendum on continuing UK membership of Europe’s precarious 28-state union. The official line, going into the referendum, of the ruling Tories is to argue for a vote to stay but only if key aspects of membership be fundamentally renegotiated and made more favourable to British needs. All the EU leaders have gathered in Brussels to hammer this out, or not as the case may be. The Chair of the Council, Polish politician Donald Tusk, as the negotiations started, declared  that “One thing is clear to me: this is a make-or-break summit.” Tension is high. Much is at stake.

Details of a leaked internal document hit the British media on Thursday morning. Its gist is that divisions among EU leaders are much wider than anyone had previously thought. A deal that allows the British government to go to the people with a case for staying in, suddenly looks much less certain, if it ever was. A long night of tough negotiations looms, and the delegates have actually been promised—this is for real, good reader—a Belgian breakfast in the morning if they’re successful. Of course some Euro-sceptics the side of the Channel would see that menu choice as further encroachment into our British way of life and culture. What's wrong with a good old full English fry-up breakfast, you hear them cry? Fried British cholesterol is always superior to the suspect Belgian stuff, don't you know. Crunch, crunch.

The troublesome questions concern state welfare benefits within member states payable to citizens of other member states, and their dependants, who are living and working in that state; commonly known as “in-work benefits” for low-paid workers. Some of these workers may claim such benefits, in the host state, for children remaining at home in the country of origin. Several Eastern European countries are demanding that those of their citizens, living in other countries (which, in this squabble, really only means Britain) receive the same amount in benefit as a local worker. London wants a major reduction. There is at least one other procedural problem over special provisions that would exempt the financial centre of the City (of London) from certain regulations that apply within the Eurozone.

France is particularly annoyed that Britain is trying, they suspect, thereby to maintain London’s advantageous position in the financial system, to the detriment of their own and that of Frankfurt. Add to these two current bouts of Euro-neuralgia the philosophical matter of the EU’s essential character: that it is the political vehicle for “ever closer union among member states.” There is much debate around what this means, as if it were not completely obvious what it means. It means what is says. A rising tide of exceptionalism,  and not just from Britain, might engulf and drown this aspiration, which is no secret to anyone despite our right-wing press’s hysterical shrieking as if they had just uncovered a terrifying dastardly plot deep in the caverns below Brussels or Strasbourg. If “ever-closer Union”is the backbone of the European project, indeed one of its founding principles, could that project stand without it? Yet the British are going into these negotiations determined to achieve such treaty change in precisely this matter.

Ask in other parts of the world, too; immigration is part of this. It's not a headline topic in these negotiations, not officially, but it casts a constant shadow over every European question. At this point in history, it might even be a bigger concern than the concession of sovereignty to the EU (it's another key part of the current European arrangement that EU law always over-rules national law). Supra-national structures that foster migration are becoming less and less popular. For some in Britain, it is the crucial issue, maybe even the only one. The tragedy, that won't go away, of refugees is fuelling rhetoric that looks increasingly ugly, perhaps even xenophobic. Trump, for one, would love it. But he's not invited to breakfast. Pass the croissants, please.

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