As David Cameron begins negotiations for EU reform in earnest, Neill Nugent, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, examines the challenges in identifying the measures that will be acceptable for the remaining 27 EU member states, whilst still delivering the changes Cameron has promised the British electorate.
The referendum promised for 2016/17 on UK membership of the European Union is, like its 1975 predecessor on UK membership of the European Community, a consequence of domestic party politics. It is being held not because David Cameron genuinely wishes to consult the British people, but rather because he was pressurised into making the promise of a referendum by rising Eurosceptism within his own party, the UKIP challenge, and electoral opportunism.
Having made the promise, he clearly wants the British people to vote to remain members of the EU. He does so not because of any deeply held European commitment but rather because he has increasingly recognised the damage withdrawal could cause to the British economy and to Britain’s standing in the world.
Because Cameron wants a ‘yes’ vote, the aims that the UK government is beginning to set out for the negotiations with the other 27 EU member states that will precede the referendum are, inevitably ‘soft’: almost open goals, some might argue. The other member states all wish, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that the UK remains a member. They do so because a British withdrawal would: result in direct economic damage for them (with, according to a recent study, Ireland, Cyprus, and the Netherlands being the main proportionate losers); constitute a serious blow to the EU’s prestige and international standing; and result in the EU exercising less influence on the world stages. But, though the other member states want the UK to remain in the EU, they do not do so to the extent that they will simply roll over if Cameron overstretches in his negotiating aims. If he is too ambitious – as he was until recently with his position of wanting agreed changes in the terms of Britain’s relations with the EU to be guaranteed in EU treaty reforms (a position from which he has now retreated) – he would risk the negotiations failing.
That such a risk would be real has been demonstrated by what happened on the two occasions when Cameron has adopted specific and ‘tough’ positions on important and high profile issues in the EU. The first such occasion was in the negotiations that led to the 2012 Fiscal Pact Treaty, which Cameron promised (almost boasted) he would veto: in the event, all of the other member states, apart from the Czech Republic, simply side-stepped Cameron and signed the Treaty outside the EU’s formal framework. The second occasion was in 2014 when Cameron was joined only by Hungary in his attempts to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker being appointed President of the European Commission.
So, Cameron is now trying to strike a difficult, but more realistic, balance. On the one hand, he is attempting to set out negotiating aims that can be presented to the British public in the referendum campaign as furthering core national interests and as having been hard won. But, on the other hand, he knows in advance that the aims must be modest enough to be acceptable to the other member states.
What then are the negotiating aims? In his address to the European Council meeting on June 26 Cameron told his fellow EU leaders: ‘We need more substantive reform in four particular areas: sovereignty, fairness, competitiveness and immigration.’
These areas are obviously very vague. That said, it is all but certain that when the specifics are worked out they will not contain anything that is a recipe for a breakdown of the negotiations. Taking, for example, the sovereignty area, Cameron has already signalled that a key matter will be distancing Britain from the EU treaty commitment of ‘creating an ever closer union’. Given reasonable good will on both sides, this should be quite manageable in the negotiations since, in practice, the creation of such a union amongst all member states has long been dropped, with increasing differentiation having become a central feature of the EU in recent years. The best known policy spheres where differentiation applies are EMU and Schengen, but there are also many other, usually related, policy spheres where, in practice, it exists. Indeed, this has been seen in a rather dramatic manner recently with the Commission’s attempts to deal with the Mediterranean immigration crisis, where it has attempted (unsuccessfully to date) to persuade member states to put themselves under a legal obligation to accept specified quotas of immigrants. Significantly, no quotas were calculated for, and none were to apply to, three states (Denmark, Ireland and the UK), because they already had opt-outs/opt-ins from aspects of immigration policy.
So, in the sovereignty area, though in the other three areas identified by Cameron too, it should be possible to find a suitable form of words – probably to be contained in some form of declaration – that sufficiently satisfies both ‘sides’ in the negotiations. But, the negotiations are only likely to get as far as finding a suitable form of words if Cameron, with the UK general election now safely out of the way, soft-peddles to some extent, is flexible, and continues with his newly-found charm offensive when meeting other EU leaders. Sympathetic noises on various aspects of the British negotiating aims have already emanated from several EU capitals – including the most important capital, Berlin – but such is the current febrile atmosphere of much of EU politics that any misjudgements by the UK government could be very costly. In particular, any pressing for a deal that is seen by other EU governments as being too favourable to the UK is unlikely to be successful: not least because all EU governments have lists of measures on which they also would like ‘preferential treatment’. And if that bag were to be opened……..!!
Neill Nugent is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.