Before the dust has properly settled over last week’s election, British politicians and their European counterparts are already setting out their stall for the next big fight, the UK’s place in the EU. While the victorious David Cameron has said the ‘renegotiation’ of British membership ahead of the promised 2017 in-out referendum will start ‘very soon’, Eastern European countries are making their position clear: freedom of movement is not up for bargaining.
‘Poland’s strategic interest is to keep Britain in. But it does not mean we will agree to anything,’ Polish Europe minister Rafal Trzaskowski told the FT. ‘Competition and the internal market are sacrosanct. And so is freedom of movement.’
‘We don’t like it when Hungarian workers are called migrants, they are EU citizens with the freedom to work in other European countries,’ Hungary’s EU minister Szabolcs Takács said, adding that freedom of movement was a ‘red line’.
Slovakia’s Europe minister Peter Javorcík was equally blunt on migrant workers' rights: ‘They cannot be touched.’
The former Eastern Bloc nations have been the UK’s traditional allies in the EU, being more pro-market than the social democrats of western and northern Europe. But they have understandably been pretty riled by the Tories’ UKIP-spurred anti-migrant rhetoric.
The threat of UKIP may have been marginalised for now. But given Cameron’s wafer-thin 12-seat majority, the Conservatives’ belligerent Eurosceptic right wing has not. Graham Brady, the head of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, said today that even ministers should be allowed to campaign against EU membership, arguing ‘freedom of expression’ would prevent tensions from bottling up inside the party.
Not all Europeans have been as firm as the eastern ministers, though. German chancellor Angela Merkel said Cameron’s win was ‘simply great’. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, not someone the UK has got on particularly well with thus far, said he was ‘ready to work with [the new government] to strike a fair deal for the UK in the EU.’
Juncker’s predecessor Jose Manuel Marroso, meanwhile, had some good advice for the ‘determined and pragmatic’ prime minister: ‘the tone is very important’.
There will certainly be less pressure on Cameron to go in hard in the negotiations without Farage nipping at his heels (at least for now anyway – Nige will no doubt be back at some point). But he will need all his political skill to keep the right wing of his party at bay as he tries to win a settlement that will silence them once and for all.