EU ‘Brexit’ deal fails to deliver on migrants’ benefits, treaty change

Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk meet in November last year, [Number 10/Flickr]

A draft deal to secure the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union has failed to deliver British demands for a total ban of four years on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits and for the bloc’s treaties to be rewritten.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for a total ban, an election manifesto promise, is replaced with a staggered scheme that would gradually increase access to welfare over a yet to be agreed time frame.

Britain could suspend some payments to migrants from the bloc for four years, starting immediately after the referendum, after meeting the conditions to trigger a so-called “emergency brake” or “safeguard mechnanism”. 

EU and UK sources confirmed Britain would meet those conditions but the measure does not put a numerical limit on immigration. But it is conditional on revisions to existing freedom of movement rules being passed by the European Parliament, as well as an “in” vote. One UK government source said the brake could also be used by migrant-exporting countries to halt the “brain drain” from their nations.

Clauses insisting that moves to guarantee British sovereignty over its financial sector and exempt it from “ever closer union” with the bloc be enshrined in the EU treaties at a future, unspecified date were put in brackets, meaning they were still up for discussion by EU leaders.

They will meet for the European Council summit in Brussels on 18 February after diplomats’ discussion scheduled for Friday and the following Thursday. If a deal is struck, the Brexit referendum is expected in June. But agreement is far from certain, with a UK source warning, “For many other member states we are at the start of the negotiation process, not the end of it.”

Treaty change and curbing immigration have been seized on by Eurosceptics as bare minimum requirements for the negotiations to be seen as successful.

European Council President Donald Tusk today (2 February) published a package to address the four British demands for EU reform that Cameron demanded to support the remain campaign in the upcoming in/out referendum.

Cameron has called for irreversible and legally binding changes to EU rules on immigration, sovereignty, competitiveness and closer integration within the eurozone single currency area.

He hailed the draft deal as a “very strong and powerful package” that incorporated “very important changes”, but said more work was needed.

Cameron was immediately attacked by Eurosceptic Brits, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, for not securing treaty change, and for watering down proposals to curb benefits for EU migrants.

Farage branded claims the package was a victory as “frankly ludicrous”, while Leave.EU, a group which is campaigning for Brexit, called the plan a “fudge and a farce”.

Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch said on Twitter, “UK-EU negotiations meaningless without complete control of borders.” 

Treaty change not necessary?

EU sources said neither Tusk, nor European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, believe that the changes need the bloc’s treaties to be re-written.

“No treaty change is needed. All of this can be done effectively under the legal framework but it is not for me to say if one day some elements are included in a treaty,” a source said.

A UK government source confirmed that the deal on the table did not reopen the treaties or trigger the lengthy ratification process in all 28 member states that that would require.

The source said, “There are bits in squared brackets, that need to come out of squared brackets – there are things that will be important to the PM that are still in squared brackets.”

The bracketed language reads, “[The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the member states.]”

Treaty change at this stage is opposed by many member states, including Germany. Any changes would take a long time – perhaps past the end of the 2017 deadline for the referendum – and need to be ratified by all 28 members, either by referendum or by parliaments.

But the package, if agreed by all member states sitting in the European Council, would be legally binding in international law and be registered with the United Nations, the source said. It could then only be changed with the agreement of all EU countries, including the UK, which would not support its amendment.

There were precedents with Denmark in 1992 and Ireland in 2009 when protocols similar to that on the table had led to the changes being incorporated into the treaties at a later date, according to the source. The British source said that the UK would not agree to any future treaty change that did not include the protocol.

Tusk’s draft also contained a “red card” system that would allow a group of 55 % – roughly equivalent to 16 parliaments – of the EU’s national parliaments to stop or change EU laws, which was one of Cameron’s goals and measures to boost competitiveness. 

>>Read: One Cameron demand met in crunch ‘Brexit’ day in Brussels

Scotland's Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop said, "We believe that continued European Union membership is overwhelmingly in Scotland's best interests, which is why we are making a positive, constructive case for staying in the EU and the many benefits it brings in terms of jobs, investment and working together to tackle shared international problems.

“We have not been consulted on the detail of these latest proposals so will need time to study them and their implications for Scotland. But if we are to influence positive change in Europe, we must preserve our EU membership.

“We are also strongly opposed to a referendum as early as June, as has been suggested, given the fact it would cut across election campaigns for the Scottish Parliament and other devolved administrations – as well as not allowing sufficient time to allow the positive case for EU membership to be made. As such, we urge the prime minister not to go ahead with a referendum in June."

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.

Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.

But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.

  • 5 February: Sherpas meet for talks on draft deal

  • 12 February: Second sherpa meeting

  • 18 February 2016: EU leaders to discuss Cameron's reform demands.

  • June 2016: Rumoured favoured date of Cameron for holding the referendum.

  • End of 2017: Deadline for referendum.

  • July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.

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