The UK has created expectations of a pick and choose Europe, writes Sylvie Goulard

Sylvie Goulard – Financial Times – February 20th 2016

David Cameron claims to have obtained “a special status” for Britain in the EU. But the agreement reached in Brussels last night is not just a “British deal” — it affects all Europeans and could have consequences more far-reaching than anyone expected. Three sources of “contagion”, in particular, have so far been underestimated.

First, democracy matters. If the settlement is a “legally binding decision”, it cannot be enforced without formal ratification in all member states. It cannot be legally binding for one party — requiring the approval of the British people in a referendum — and merely interpretative for others. The constitutional rules of many member states require parliamentary authorisation to ratify international agreements.

Discussion of the deal outside the UK has so far been quite limited, but that is likely to change as its terms are assessed. The more Mr Cameron claims victory in achieving substantial treaty change, the more voters across Europe will want to have a say, especially when they discover how unfair the deal is for the Eurozone. The desire for democratic accountability will be contagious. And the British ought to understand this very well: the frustrations of voters in England at the time of the Scottish referendum shows how problematic asymmetrical constitutional settlements can be.

Second, by asking for special treatment the British government has created expectations elsewhere. The illusory idea that member states can “pick and choose” which bits of European legislation they sign up to is widely shared. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front in France, has already announced her intention to campaign for a similar renegotiation for France, should she win the presidency in 2017. But an EU that offers stability and all the advantages of the single market without imposing shared sovereignty is a fool’s dream. What if, tomorrow, EU countries were to ask to be exempted from competition policy or from trade negotiations with the US? By transforming the right for a state to leave the EU into the right to blackmail partners with the threat of leaving, Mr Cameron has opened Pandora’s box. And free trade and business-oriented Britain could one day be a victim of his own gambit.

Third, across Europe, the question of the free movement of workers and their access to social and welfare benefits has become a neuralgic one. In Switzerland, for example, where in February 2014 a majority voted in a referendum in favour of quotas for migrants from the EU, negotiators are hoping that the deal with the UK can be used as a precedent. But limiting the free movement of labour would harm competitiveness. Moreover, it would be unfortunate if European leaders spent more time in the future discussing the details of child allowances than tackling the big geopolitical challenges that confront them.

The only way to find a fair and lasting recalibration of the relationship between the UK and its partners — which should certainly be our common goal — is to have an open debate on the future of Europe and a formal revision of EU treaties, in accordance with democratic principles. The settlement achieved last night is legally dubious and politically dangerous. Mr Cameron has won a Pyrrhic victory.

The writer is a member of the European Parliament, where she sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats