Belgium – Brussels : In November, after much anticipation, David Cameron finally detailed the areas in which he would like to see reform undertaken, at the European level, before the referendum on British membership of the EU takes place. Some of these demands, for example those concerning increased competitiveness, growth and greater efficiency, are in the EU’s interest and certainly need to be tackled.
However, many elements of his demands are somewhat more thorny and complex to resolve. David Cameron considers that there must be no discrimination of non-Eurozone members, there is more than one currency in the EU, the integrity of the Single Market must be protected, a formal, legally-binding and irreversible commitment is needed to exclude the United Kingdom from being part of an “ever closer union”, immigration to the United Kingdom must be controlled and national parliaments need more powers.
On the Euro Area/EU 28 issue, the British prime minister is right to ask for fair treatment. No Member State should be discriminated against. The starting point for discussion should nevertheless be the current Treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon foresees a single union, whose currency is the euro. All Member States, except the UK and Denmark which have opt-outs, are committed to joining the euro. This is not a question of 19 versus 28 but rather of 26 versus 28. In order for it to be possible to create the institutional framework required for an economic and monetary union, one currency, albeit with derogations, was necessary. This Treaty was voluntarily signed and ratified by all 28 Member States, and there is a real risk of creating a dangerous precedent, which could be detrimental to the European Union as a whole, if one element of the already agreed Treaty is put into question by one Member State.
These same issues are at stake when analyzing the British request for a unilateral exemption from the concept of “ever closer union”. This principle has been present in the Treaties since 1957 and is perfectly coherent with, and even at the heart of, the European project and its ambitions. This principle, accepted by the UK, has not prevented it from negotiating its own special status within the EU: it is not part of the Schengen area, it has an opt-out from the Euro, exemptions in the social field, as well as opt-outs from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
How many opt-outs can a Member State have and still be considered a full member of the EU, with a commissioner, the same status in the Council and with MEPs voting on all issues? Once the sovereign decision has been taken not to be part of the core, there is no discrimination.
On migration, the difficulty is of another nature. The free movement of persons is one of the four founding principles of the EU. It remains very important for many Member States, particularly those who joined the EU since 2004, and they have made it very clear that a modification of the Treaties to limit it is unacceptable. One also has to be aware of the fact that the UK’s current situation has largely been created because of previous British decisions. In contrast to Member States, such as Germany and France, the UK is one of only three Member States that decided not to impose transitional periods concerning when their borders would be fully open to migrants from the Members States joining the EU in 2004 and thus a significantly larger number of migrants moved to the UK. The presentation of the ‘problem’ and the ‘solution’ concerning intra-EU migration into Britain has been misrepresented by both British politicians and the press. Far from there being no rules to reduce the allowances which migrants are eligible for, the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice allows access to allowances to be conditional on specific criteria, as EU case law clearly illustrates (ECJ -11/11/2014 – Elisabeta Dano, Florin Dano vs. Jobcenter Leipzig – C-333/13). This may be the issue where David Cameron finds his demands fall on deaf ears.
Last but not least, the European Union is an entity where multiple layers of democratic accountability are required. National parliaments’ primary role when controlling the executive is to control the actions of national governments, and it is for the European Parliament to control decisions taken at the European level. Neither the accountability nor the efficiency of European decision-making would be improved by increasing the powers of the national parliaments at the European level. To create national vetoes concerning European legislation would contradict the objective of making the EU more efficient.
The decision to try to renegotiate the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU is one with great consequences for the whole Union. The UK has made a valuable contribution to the Union, through its democratic history, its business focus and openness to the world, and its partners are ready to help to try and find an agreement which is acceptable for everyone in order for it to remain in the EU. These, however, are collective negotiations. This is not a question simply for the British public.
The public opinions of the 27 other Members States need to be convinced that any new agreement is also in their interest. The other Member States will not make damaging concessions just to ensure that the UK remains a member, under the threat of leaving. In this case, who would be next?