As welcome as David Cameron’s U-turn on accepting Syrian refugees into the UK unquestionably is, there’s very little chance it was inspired by purely altruistic motives. Yes, the Prime Minister had been inundated by outraged calls from opponents and his own party to escalate the nation’s humanitarian efforts, and yes, he had been “deeply moved by the sight of that young boy on a beach in Turkey.” However, what had ultimately moved him to concede ground in this debate was not his bedevilled conscience, but the galling prospect of being politically crippled in Europe and at home.
This possibility became more tangible to him earlier in the week, when he was treated to some very adversarial threats from his partners in Europe. The Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann, cautioned him that Britain would have a very hard time renegotiating its EU budgetary commitments if it didn’t welcome more refugees into its arms, while Stephan Mayer, the home affairs spokesperson for the Christian Social Union party in Germany, argued that the UK’s unrepentant posture could undermine its ability to renegotiate its EU membership.
If these warnings weren’t dire enough, Germany’s Bild newspaper ran a story whose headline defined Britain as the “slackers of Europe”, heightening a political atmosphere in which the nation was perceived as shirking its responsibilities both within and without the European Union. In fact, it was implicitly accused of doing just as much, with François Hollande, the French President, declaring on Thursday that “there are countries that are not fulfilling their moral obligations.” Similarly, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, called on EU member states to exhibit some “solidarity” in how it deals with the crisis as a whole, thereby implying that she was less than happy with the 216 refugees Britain has accommodated as part of its official relocation programme.
This 216 stands in feeble contrast to the 800,000 refugees her nation is likely to receive this year, or to the 4,000,000 displaced Syrians in total. It’s therefore no wonder that the likes of Germany, Austria and France have been busy scolding Britain, portending reprisals when it comes to the island nation’s wish to secure more favourable terms for itself within the EU. Moreover, it’s these very admonishments that have finally cowed the Prime Minister into reconsidering its policy on relocating Syrian refugees to the United Kingdom, since without such a gesture he risks, not only his reputation abroad and at home, but also the UK’s EU membership.
That its membership would be jeopardized if he didn’t show a glimmer of humanity is borne out by the simple fact of Britain’s impending referendum on EU membership. Due to be held by the autumn of 2016, Mr Cameron had staked a ‘yes’ vote on his ability to reform the EU and repatriate powers to the UK. Given that he has done little recently to motivate his European allies to grant Britain concessions, and given that there’s less chance of a positive outcome in the upcoming EU referendum if he doesn’t have any reforms to his name, his default ‘anti-alien’ setting has sleepwalked him into a scenario where a ‘no’ vote is increasingly probable.
Of course, he has now taken emergency measures to avoid such a contingency. By agreeing to lodge more refugees he hopes that Europe will be more willing to accede to his (currently unspecified) demands, and that such accession will be enough to persuade the electorate back home to vote ‘yes’ in the planned referendum. However, if the EU chooses not to cut him any slack, he may very well prove impotent to prevent a British exit from the Union. Such a momentous departure — betraying Cameron as a political incompetent — would have grave ramifications for his party’s future electoral prospects. Worse still, it would have deleterious effects on the British economy, at least according to what he himself believes.
So that’s why he’s ‘had a heart’ and agreed to resettle more Syrian refugees. More bluntly, he’s doing it to save his own skin, and less to save the skin of the men, women and children the United Kingdom will take under its care. Yet even without his ulterior motives, this pressured submission to popular demand is no more than a tokenistic gesture anyway, because Britain’s ratification of the UN Refugee Convention means that it already accepted an indefinite number of Syrian refugees decades ago.
As the treaty’s 26th article states, Britain has already agreed to honour the right of refugees “to choose their place of residence [and] to move freely within its territory.” As such, all David Cameron has really done is grudgingly acknowledge a prior British engagement to accept any individual who reaches its shores after escaping a threat to their life or freedom. To his credit, he has now committed himself to helping such people actually travel to Britain, but as his bowing to European pressure has shown, he’s interested more in his own refuge than theirs.