David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, says he wants “a reformed EU”. But he has yet to declare his hand with regard to exactly what he wants. Indeed, he probably does not know yet what cards he will play, and will be using the latest round of talks to test various ideas in order to avoid the disastrous tactic of making impossible demands.
He can certainly get support from other member states to build up a momentum for continuing reforms in many policy areas. But this is an ongoing, never-ending process – not some kind of rabbit that can simply be pulled out of the hat in time for a British referendum on EU membership (which is likely in 2016 or 2017).
So Cameron needs to watch his language here, and get real: different terms will generate different expectations. The term “reform” has to be used in the spirit of a constructive resolution. The other big terms used in the ongoing debate over the EU – “repatriation” and “renegotiation” – do not hold much promise.
The three R’s
Consider the many speeches from Tory backbenchers about “repatriating” powers from Brussels. Tories who want a Brexit would delight in requests for repatriation, precisely because they would lead to a failure of negotiations. Any “repatriation” of treaty-level powers would require unanimous agreement from the other EU member states. And since the other states would not agree to such changes, the rhetoric of “repatriation” does not fly.
And besides, a careful look at the government’s own review on the balance of powers between the UK and the EU has shown most EU powers to be “shared” with member states, and that the sharing has mostly found a sensible balance.
“Renegotiation” may sound more plausible. But in fact, the scope for this kind of change is very limited for a few key reasons. Much EU law concerns the broad single market area, where the UK wants other member states to do more, not less.
And the UK already has huge opt-outs from the policies it does not like (such as the euro, the Schengen area and justice and home affairs). Finally, other key areas for “renegotiation”, such as foreign policy and taxation, are also guarded by the unanimity requirement for any important decisions to be made.
Various Tories want treaty changes to get a “better deal”, or a “new settlement” with the EU. But most other member states want a new treaty like a hole in the head: “no thanks”, they’ll say. The best that might be obtained is some form of “promissory note”; essentially, an agreement on things to be included in a future treaty. “Reform” it is, then.
Red tape – already being cut
The prime minister is ardent about cutting “Brussels red tape”. No problem: the European Commission has a new plan for better regulation, with the vice president entrusted to do just that. So here, Cameron has it in the bag already, even if implementation will be a never-ending task.
The prime minister also wants to cut the “ever closer union” language from the treaty. This is vague rhetoric. The wording is actually about ever closer union of the peoples of Europe, in no way implying a federal super-state. Europe’s people are getting closer together, which is good for peace and the richness of cultural diversity, for instance with an increasing number of mixed marriages.
The tough issues in migration
Migration is the big beast. First an easy point: Cameron wants to prevent future EU enlargements causing massive migration. Again, no problem: the UK has a veto hold over any future enlargement. Maybe this will be a real issue in five to ten years time, and in the meantime he has put down a marker.
But the toughest issue is over current conditions for migration within the EU. There are some things Cameron can do without having to negotiate with the EU, like recalibrating the rules for granting residence status for over three months for immigrants who are not employed. This is important, since access to welfare benefits are tied to residence. This gives Cameron a lever to control so-called “benefit tourism” (the evidence for which, however, is very thin).
He also wants to restrict so-called “in-work” benefits, such as those for social housing, child benefits and tax credits. This will be more tricky, as it could conflict with the principle of non-discrimination (by gender, nationality, faith, and others). This makes it a likely topic for negotiation, which could possibly result in some secondary legislation at the EU level, to change the status quo.
The prime minister would like a guarantee that the eurozone will not adopt regulations in the financial market that discriminate against the City. The UK already has experience of negotiating solutions along these lines, and the British commissioner, Lord Hill, is in charge of this area. So this seems like an area where he could have some success.
Cameron also speaks of giving national parliaments a greater say in EU legislation. This is easier said than done. National parliaments can already call their governments to account for negotiating positions taken in the EU Council of Ministers: the House of Commons and Lords have a scrutiny committee to do this. And there is already a “yellow card” system for national parliaments to work together to call new legislation into question. Some people want a “red card” system, to turn this into a blocking power. But it would be a big constitutional mess if MPs in national parliaments were able to overturn decisions taken by their governments in the European Council or parliament.
The bottom line is that Cameron must build up an “ongoing reform” agenda for policies where the UK has clear interests: areas like energy, climate, services and the digital sector. He must also focus his efforts on areas where the UK can find allies. If he does all this, he may just have something to show for his efforts, by the time the UK’s EU referendum comes round.