‘Brexit’ bandwagon gathers pace as EU fears copycat demands

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L) jokes with UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage (R) ahead of a debate on the UK’s upcoming in-or-out EU referendum, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on February 3, 2016.    Prime Minister David Cameron will on February 3 defend planned reforms to keep Britain in the EU before parliament, as European lawmakers begin negotiations in Strasbourg to avoid a so-called "Brexit" from the bloc. / AFP / PATRICK HERTZOG


If David Cameron leaves next week’s European Union summit with a deal to overhaul the terms of Britain’s membership, many of his counterparts will breathe a sigh of relief —and dig out their own wishlists.
As populist and anti-EU forces surge across the region, the prime minister’s ultimately successful strategy of issuing demands for change and threatening to leave if they’re not met has left an impression on his fellow leaders, two senior EU officials said. Some see his approach as a template for pushing their own causes, the officials said, asking not to be named because the discussions were private.
“The fact David Cameron raised a number of concerns and these concerns have all been addressed is creating a political precedent,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, policy analyst at the London-based Open Europe think tank. “The British renegotiation should be seen as part of a longer-term path toward broader reform of the EU—Cameron has raised existential questions about its future.”
Europe’s economic foundations were fractured by the debt crisis and now over a million refugees are pulling at its social fabric, bolstering populist movements from Madrid to Helsinki and fanning anti-EU feeling in former Soviet-bloc nations. That ensures when Cameron pushes for an accord at the Feb. 18-19 summit diminishing some of the bloc’s influence over the U.K., the shockwaves could resonate far beyond the English Channel.

“All eyes are on France,” said John Springford, senior research fellow at London’s Centre for European Reform. EU officials are keen on “sending signals” to National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the wider French electorate “that this trick won’t work,” because “if France goes euro-skeptic, the project is toast.”
From a loosening of the EU’s power to interfere in national law-making to greater integration of economic policy, nations’ pet projects are contentious and contradictory. The paradox, according to the EU officials, is that while the bloc would be stronger if the U.K. opts to stay, any attempts to copy Cameron’s strategy would have a destabilizing effect.
“Anyone could say ‘let’s do Brexit, it works’,” if the UK votes to leave the EU, Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said in an interview with Politico published on Wednesday. “And since there is a lot of anti-European feeling in many if not all countries, this would provide, indirectly, a very strong weapon to the anti-European feeling in many countries.”
With such an array of outlooks on how the EU should evolve, the bloc could face a difficult few years, said Kevin Featherstone, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics.
“Populist parties from France, Hungary, etc. would make different kinds of demands so it would be very much Europe a la carte,” he said. That means “the complexity—or the chaos — of dealing with very diverse demands.”

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