What’s on David Cameron’s EU wish list?

Certainly not scribbled out at the last minute. Reuters/Toby Melville

David Cameron’s EU wish list has finally been published. But there are no surprise entries. The past few months have been spent floating suggestions for EU reform, often to sound them out on eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers, so most people had a general sense of what Cameron would ask for as he set out his aspirations for renegotiating the UK’s place in the European Union.

Cameron’s ultimate objective is to be in a position “to campaign to keep Britain inside a reformed EU”. To achieve this, he needs to square the circle of getting reforms accepted by the EU that in turn mollify British euroscepticism. How probable is it then that he will find a receptive audience among EU leaders?

Sovereignty

Walking away from an “ever-closer union” in Europe is one of the key British demands. For opponents of the EU, this principle captures its overweening ambition to erase sovereignty and national identity (even though the current wording was changed at the insistence of John Major prior to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty).

Getting a legally binding formulation that absolves the UK of this commitment is possible. It could build on the European Council’s 2014 recognition that an ever-closer union is a concept that could be adapted for different countries. Whatever the legal niceties, however, this would be a purely symbolic act. It could never be a carte blanche for the UK to avoid implementing EU single market rules.

Donald Tusk checks the mail. Reuters/François Lenoir

Allowing national parliaments from across the EU to caucus to oppose EU legislation is another demand. This proposal would go beyond the existing orange card procedure that allows national parliaments to act in concert to challenge laws proposed by the European Commission.

Many backbenchers would like a unilateral UK veto. That is both outlandish and fundamentally incompatible with EU law. On the other hand, giving national parliaments collective power to veto legislative proposals requires either treaty change or else a gentleman’s agreement by members of the European Council. The first option is not very practical in a context where most EU leaders want to avoid questioning the existing treaties and would be opposed by the Commission and the European parliament. The informal option is at best a short-term fix as it would always be at the mercy of a future change in consensus amongst EU leaders.

Competitiveness

The grudging acceptance that a unilateral opt-out from unwanted single market legislation is impossible explains why getting the EU to focus on competitiveness is another Cameron priority. The C word is a conveniently amorphous concept. It allows both sides to claim they fully support the principle, even if they interpret it differently.

Here, the EU’s track record will remain of concern to eurosceptics. In 2000 the EU unveiled the the Lisbon Agenda with grand fanfare. This was a 10-year plan to become “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. Of course no one really remembers this document now. A new EU initiative with a snazzy title is the most likely outcome of this particular entry on Cameron’s wish list.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the single market, it remains the best game in town. So Cameron’s objective of securing UK access is by far the most substantive and far-sighted renegotiation goal.

The euro club

There is a legitimate concern that the eurozone may act as a bloc within the EU, using its majority in the European Council to pass laws primarily for its own interests. A particular worry is that financial regulations could be imposed on the UK financial market, making it less globally competitive.

There is clearly a need for a clearer legal framework and there is evidence that EU decision makers recognise the need to avoid discriminating between euro-ins and euro–outs.

The British government’s concerns about protecting the financial sector are already accommodated by a double majority voting system for banking matters. But extending this principle to all EU law will be politically fraught and again would involve treaty change.

Immigration

Lastly, Cameron’s list includes demands on individual rights. These issues are bound to prove the most controversial both domestically and abroad. This is because the right of EU citizens to move to the UK is now inherently politicised as part of a broader debate over immigration – a subject that was absent from the 1975 EEC referendum.

Denying access to in-work benefits to recently-arrived jobseekers from elsewhere in the EU is discriminatory, unless the rules also oblige UK workers to have contributed for a number of years prior to claiming.

The result is a Catch 22 pledge that cannot be resolved unless one side compromises. Cameron will find it very difficult to accept limiting British citizens’ existing entitlements for the sake of EU law. At the same time, EU institutions and governments are unwilling to see the UK get away with overt discrimination. One solution would be treaty change allowing all member states to implement such rules. There is no evidence, however, of a consensus in favour of overhauling the principle that enshrines the free movement of people.

Overall, Cameron’s tone in both his letter and the speech he used to promote it is measured and constructive. But negotiations in Brussels are not simply a matter of sending in a list of one’s hearts desires in the hope they wlil be granted. The content of the British wish list is controversial and complex. Somehow Cameron will need to avoid a stalemate and claim a substantive victory. Whether that is realistic depends now on the response from other EU capitals.