Refugee crisis casts shadow over David Cameron's attempts to renegotiate EU membership terms

Just when he needs friends in Europe, the PM is making enemies by refusing to take part in an EU-wide scheme to share the burden of the asylum-seekers

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Indy Politics

The migration crisis engulfing Europe has cast a shadow over David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, making an already difficult task even more problematic.

The Prime Minister is caught between a rock and a hard place. Since the May election, immigration has risen to the top of the public’s concerns –hardly surprising after the scenes in Calais. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, can argue that the only way to “seal the borders” is to leave the EU.  Conservative MPs are nervous about looking “soft” on immigration.

But there are conflicting currents: attempts by ministers to portray the desperate people trying to get to Britain as economic migrants have not worked. The world can now see that many are genuine refugees.

Mr Cameron holds talks in Lisbon and Madrid as he launches the second wave of his charm offensive ahead of the UK’s in/out referendum. But just when he needs friends on the continent, he is making enemies by refusing to take part in an EU-wide scheme to share the burden of the asylum-seekers.

Technically, Britain is within its rights, as it has an opt-out from EU asylum policy. But politically, Mr Cameron is on dodgy ground.  Britain is a rich country and can afford to do more than accept 216 Syrians, rising to a maximum of 1,000 by 2017. Ministers deny that their ill-fated target to reduce annual net migration to under 100,000  encourages a hard line on asylum claims, but the suspicion remains that it does. Clearly, asylum-seekers should not count towards the target.

Countries such as Germany, Italy and Austria are now making clear that Mr Cameron will pay a price in the renegotiation for his stubborn refusal to share the burden on refugees.  The EU works on the basis of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” True, the EU has not displayed much of its much-vaunted “solidarity” as member states play pass the parcel with human beings. A spectacular row erupted in June when EU leaders failed to reach agreement on how to share out 40,000 refugees. Gleeful Eurosceptics in Britain ask “what is the point of the EU?”—and with some reason.

Jean Claude-Juncker, the European Commission President, who failed to prepare the ground before the June summit, will relaunch his scheme next week, and may propose that a total of 160,000 refugees are relocated. But Britain will almost certainly remain on the sidelines, further damaging Mr Cameron’s standing in Europe and his prospects of getting a good EU deal. The official line is that Britain “will not take part in any compulsory EU resettlement scheme or be bound by targets as part of a voluntary scheme.” It doesn’t have to be like this: Ireland also has an opt-out on asylum policy but has offered to take 600 refugees.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, further alienated some EU governments by appearing to lecture them about the failings of their “open borders” Schengen agreement – outside which, of course, Britain remains in splendid isolation. You can’t opt out and then dictate terms to those who opt in.

Mr Cameron will probably end up accepting Syrians more quickly than planned or even raising the 1,000 maximum. But he is likely to shun the EU scheme for fear of alienating his MPs and the public.

The sorry saga highlights the near impossible balancing act the Prime Minister must perform as he tries to please a domestic and EU audience at the same time. One way or the other, the migration crisis will make it much harder for him to win the referendum, putting Britain’s place in the EU at risk.