Several studies, including those realised by the government and the Parliament, highlight the positive role of EU membership for British businesses and for the British people as a whole. Other studies show that immigrants, in particular European ones, contributed more in taxes over the past decade than they claimed in benefits. Moreover, the UK has very often championed liberalism. But this does not stop David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, from adopting a negative discourse about hotly debated topics such as EU integration and immigration / free-movement. This attempt to compete with the UKIP for the votes of right-wing voters by copying its simplistic solutions is however a mistaken strategy; rather, the Tories and their leader should have a clear strategy to reform the EU (instead of threatening to leave it) and the UK, based on their traditional values and beliefs.
First, it is useless for the Tories to copy the UKIP. Indeed, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration Tory backbenchers may be the best campaigners for UKIP, insofar as they force on top of the agenda the very same topics that Nigel Farage wants to discuss in the media: the EU and immigration. This allows Mr Farage to avoid talking about the negative effects his programme would have for the British economy and the British image in the world. In addition, instead of considering the possibility to occasionally build local alliances with the UKIP, further strengthening it, the Tories should highlight what is wrong with the UKIP’s programme and claims.
Secondly, the full adhesion of UKIP voters to the party’s programme remains to be demonstrated. Indeed, Europe and immigration are often the scapegoat of deeper difficulties, and the popularity of such topics probably hides a real deeper dissatisfaction with politics (both European and domestic). So, the Tories should not adopt the same superficial analysis that underlies the UKIP’s discourse; rather, they should attempt to tackle the true problems faced by the people, such as unemployment and a decreasing purchasing power in the past years. And admitting that UKIP voters really agree with Mr Farage, why would they choose an imitation rather than the original anti-EU, anti-immigrant party?
Thirdly, David Cameron was not elected on an anti-EU, anti-immigration programme. Although he did not manage to get a sufficient majority to govern alone, David Cameron should not abandon the hallmarks of the programme that allowed him to become leader of the Conservative Party and then UK Prime Minister. The Tories’ programme was about being more pro-business, giving more freedom of choice to individuals and businesses, and empowering the civil society (remember the idea of the “big society”), while partly rolling back the State. It was not about restricting free movement and some kind of isolationism.
Fourthly, the UK has a tradition of being among the politically and economically liberal Nations. It is not the time to squander that legacy. In addition, anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric creates uncertainty and damages the attractiveness of the UK in the eyes of foreign businesses, investors and skilled workers.
Finally, Cameron needs to stop tacking and should instead adopt a clear vision on the future of the EU and the strategy to implement it. About everybody in Europe agrees that the EU needs reforms. The question is: which reforms, and how to get them through the decision process? Occasionally, the British PM has made proposals that must be welcomed, e.g., cutting red-tape at EU level. But too often, his criticism is not constructive. The Tories and Mr Cameron need to understand that they will be able to reform the EU not by formulating ultimatum or threats – this will isolate them further in the EU – but by formulating proposals and building alliances with their continental partners. This requires a more diplomatic and balanced approach, with softer tones, deeper thinking about reformed policies, and compromise-readiness.
So, David Cameron and the Tories need to set clear and credible goals and build an effective strategy to achieve them. Convincing voters and reforming the EU will not succeed by imitating the UKIP; instead, citizens are waiting for an alternative solution!