David Cameron’s renegotiation strategy is as much about quelling rebellion within his own party as it is about obtaining real reforms from the EU, argues Steven Blockmans.
Steven Blockmans is a senior research fellow at CEPS, the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
Heads of state and government will try to reach a deal on British demands for EU reforms at an extraordinary summit of the European Council in February, while using the upcoming meeting on 17 December for political guidance.
The four clusters of demands, set out in a letter sent by Prime Minister Cameron to European Council President Tusk, concern sovereignty, economic governance, competitiveness and immigration. While there is reason to believe that an agreement can be found on three of the demands, it is the fourth that causes the biggest headache.
Sharpening up his interpretation of this demand in his letter to Tusk, Cameron has now threatened that he will campaign to leave the EU unless other member states agree to provide him with a binding Protocol to the EU treaties that introduces an exemption from the free movement rules so that he can curb in-work benefits for newly arrived EU workers for four years in the UK.
This demand is highly problematic because it touches upon the prohibition to discriminate on grounds of nationality, a fundamental principle of EU law and cornerstone of both the single market and the concept of EU citizenship. Whereas the Treaties provide for temporary derogations from the principle, like the ones invoked by some member states to deal with the flow of refugees, none of the existing exceptions allows for the structural type of ‘opt-out’ to the principle of non-discrimination which Cameron is asking for.
Several EU member states, in particular from Central and Eastern Europe, have expressed strong opposition to change the Treaty in this respect. When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country will hold the rotating Presidency of the Council as of 1 January, expressed his disbelief at Cameron’s latest demand, he probably gave voice to what most of the other governments feel about the new twist in the Brexit saga. The British Prime Minister has admitted that “the scale of what we are asking for means we will not resolve this in one go”.
So why did Cameron stick his flag even deeper in the wound he inflicted upon the European Union? Arguably, he is trying to compensate for the lukewarm reception his letter to Tusk got at home, with hardliners claiming that the premier had merely passed on to the EU a tick-the-box list of easy-to-get reforms. Cameron’s new strategy is to show to his British audience, in particular UKIP voters and anti-EU backbenchers, that he has fought like a lion to get the best possible deal for the UK, and has not shied away from raising the thorniest of issues.
Cameron is helped by other leaders’ reactions that they believe his negotiations will be very, very tough. By being seen to try to impossible, he will then be able to claim that, in the face of a wall of opposition from other member states, Britain should accept retreat to its opening position which allows it to curb welfare benefits within the limits determined by the European Court of Justice, and claim victory on all other demands.
Having obtained the best possible deal for the UK’s future relationship to the EU, every pragmatic British voter should then be persuaded to vote to remain in the EU.