Comment: Cameron’s renegotiations of the UK’s EU membership terms – perceptions, alternatives and recommendations


It has now been two months since Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, setting out the areas he is seeking to reform the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). On 17 December 2015, Mr. Cameron met the heads of the Member States to make his case, but he was left searching for a face-saving plan B in his attempt to restrict immigration to the United Kingdom, after EU leaders opposed his most debated demand for reforming Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Here I review how main British political parties and selected EU Member States (MS) have perceived Cameron’s terms of UK’s membership, but also assess what progress been made in the negotiations since 10th November.

The heading of the letter Cameron posted to Tusk read as: ‘A new settlement for the United Kingdom in a reformed European Union’ in which Cameron praised the benefits of UK’s EU membership, but at the same he proposed a number of reforms that would arguably address British people’s concerns about UK relations with the EU. Below are the four areas where Cameron is seeking reform:

‘Economic Governance’: the PM is looking for assurances that no discrimination would be made for any business on the basis of the currency of their country and asks for the protection of the integrity of the Single Market. He argues it must be voluntary for non-Euro countries to comply with any changes the Eurozone decides and taxpayers in non-Euro countries should never be financially liable for operations to support the Eurozone as a currency.

‘Competitiveness’: Cameron claimed that the burden from existing regulation is still too high and asked a target to be set to cut the total burden on business, and added the EU should also do more to fulfil its commitment to the free flow of capital, goods and services.

‘Sovereignty’; the PM demanded the end of Britain’s obligation to work towards an “ever closer union” as set out in the Treaty through a formal, legally binding and irreversible way. Furthermore he demanded the enhancement of the role of national parliaments through a new arrangement through assigning groups of national parliaments so to be able to stop unwanted legislative proposals. Additionally, he demanded the EU institutions to fully respect the commitment behind the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Protocols in any future proposals dealing with JHA matters, in particular to preserve the UK’s ability to choose to participate.

‘Immigration’: the PM asked for the following assurances: free movement should not apply to new members until their economies have converged much more closely with existing member states; tougher and longer re-entry bans to ‘crack down’ on the abuse of free movement and for people who collude in sham marriages. In order to reduce the flow of people in to the UK he asked: the European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgments to be addressed as its scope has widened free movement; in-work benefits and social housing should only given to those EU citizens who have lived in the UK and contributed for four years; and the practice of sending child benefit overseas should be ended.

There were mixed reactions to the PM’s demands from both the Euro-sceptic and pro-European camps. While the former seem to be paying attention to a range of reforms proposals Cameron is making: supremacy of national parliaments, freedom of movement, EU budget, and ‘ever closer union’, the latter is concentrating on the PM’s most debated reform plan: access to welfare benefits for the EU migrants. Additionally, the Euro-sceptics call on the British people not to trust the government in their renegotiations with the EU. Hitherto, the pros appear to have limited interaction with the ordinary voter.

On the Euro-sceptic side, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage claimed that Cameron was not bold enough on the issues of supremacy of national Parliaments, freedom of movement and the EU budget and said that it was ‘clear that Mr Cameron is not aiming for an substantial negotiation’. It is hardly a surprise that Mr Farage is not persuaded by the PM’s demands since Farage campaigns for Britain to leave the EU. Similarly the UKIP’s spokeswoman Margot Parker claimed that Cameron has been ‘fooling the public into voting to stay in the bloc’ and said that she was not convinced that Cameron’s proposals would have impact on what she described as ‘the EU’s ever closer end game’. Ms Margot’s claim about Cameron ‘fooling’ the public is an example of manipulative language being used by UKIP in the hope of catching the attention of the ordinary British people.

Evidence suggests that UKIP is the only political party that hosts debates in village halls and theatres across regions which seems to suggest that the campaign to leave the EU is better organised in the regions where the referendum will be won and lost . The pro-European camp urgently needs to begin interacting with ordinary British people to make the case for why Britain should stay in the EU.

‘Vote Leave’ EU campaign director Dominic Cummings, said: ‘The public wants the end of the supremacy of EU law, to take back control of our democracy, and to spend the money wasted in Brussels on our priorities like the NHS and science’, and argues that the safest choice would be to vote to leave the EU. Mr Cummings however overlooks to the effects Brexit would have on the British political system, the British economy and the delivery of public services itself. The Eurosceptic Conservative Sir Bill Cash MP points out how much the public can trust the government on the issues of EU, and said whatever the promises have been made in the renegotiations, there is no certainty that the government would deliver them. This is probably an awkward position to be in for Cash since he is warning the public about his own party.

The Euro-sceptic campaign misleads public opinion about the costs of UK’s EU membership, and in particular to what degree the government cannot be trusted on the EU. Although I want the UK to remain in the EU, the Euro-sceptics have a clear strategy for making their case for why the UK should not stay in the EU.

In the pro-European camp, the Labour Party’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn opposed Cameron’s demand for restricting migrants’ access to welfare: “if somebody is working, paying taxes, doing a job just like any body else, then surely they deserve access to exactly the same benefits as anybody else”. Although Corbyn believes EU institutions are too close to big business and corporate interests, he pledges to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. Meanwhile, the pro-EU Labour group led by the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU no matter what Cameron achieves as part of his renegotiations. Corbyn claims that over the longer term the Labour Party would also campaign for the reform of workers’ rights at the EU level. Similarly the General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress Frances O’Grady said: ‘David Cameron must spell out his position on workers’ rights. People are more likely to vote to stay in a Europe that balances benefits for business with strong rights and protections for workers’.

However, (former) Labour Party European spokesperson Pat McFadden said that there is nothing the PM can renegotiate with EU member states that would satisfy the large part of the Conservative Party, since the Conservatives want Britain out of the EU at all costs. Mr McFadden like Corbyn mocked Cameron’s renegotiations by saying: ‘Cameron is leading Britain to the EU exit door ‘by default’ because of trivial squabbles over benefit changes for migrant workers’, advising the PM that a reformed EU could only be achieved by ‘playing a leading role in the EU rather than threatening to walk out of the door’. On the other hand, outgoing Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) President Graham Watson said ‘if Cameron wants to apply his proposed set of benefit changes to the people from other MSs then he also has to apply the same rule to people from the UK, as one of the fundamental principles of the EU is non-discrimination.’

Cameron’s plan to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership raises questions about the future of Scotland and Wales in the EU, as well as their place in the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru’s reactions towards Cameron’s EU wish list were too different from those of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Former leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, who is campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, ridiculed Cameron’s referendum strategy: ‘So we’re actually going to determine the future of the UK in the EU on the basis of whether or nor hardworking Polish migrants send their child benefit back to Warsaw’. Both the Labour’s McFadden, and the SNP’s European affairs spokesman Stephen Gethins have noted the PM’s strongest foe in this referendum is the Eurosceptics in his party.

Gethins has also criticised the Conservative government for not consulting the Scottish Government about the PM’s renegotiation strategy. Cameron should have discussed the content of his letter with the Scottish political parties before it was sent to Brussels. Not only because the fate of the referendum concern the people living in the Scotland, but also because the Conservatives had promised a ‘respect agenda’ to Scotland after the Scottish Independence referendum. Then SNP leader Salmond and the head of Better Together campaign, Former Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, highlighted two important lessons from the Scottish referendum that could be in the best interests of the ‘In’ campaign to galvanize support for the UK to remain in the EU. Salmond said that negative campaigning against Scottish independence helped drive more voters towards the pro-independence camp, whose support rose from 28 % to 45% in 18 months. Thus the EU ‘In’ campaign should be a positive which concentrates on what Europe should do rather than what it should stop doing. Mr. Alexander said the lessons of the Scottish referendum are that evidence-based arguments need to be supplemented with emotional connection and a positive account of our future. This means that the ‘In’ campaign needs to supplement the evidence-based positives of the EU membership with emotional connections of now and future.

The Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said: ‘Wales is an outward-looking, European nation whose national interests are best served by remaining in the EU’ and added ‘The Prime Minister’s reform demands must now be subject to a full discussion and debate’. Ms Wood urged the PM that protection is granted for structural funds and agricultural payments Wales receives from the EU. Additionally, the Party of Wales would oppose any plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and would guard against attempts to dilute or repeal European laws that have helped protect Welsh workers and our environment.

Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru was disappointed when Cameron did not share his proposals for reforming the UK’s relationship with the EU with the Welsh authorities. It would be the right thing to do for the PM to speak to both the Scottish and Welsh authorities when he is next making decisions concerning the future of these countries. As a result, Welsh First Minister Jones issued a joint-statement with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon: ‘Any decision to leave the EU, taken against the wishes of the people of Wales or Scotland, would be unacceptable and steps must be taken to ensure this does not happen.’ A constitutional crsis might unfold if England votes to Leave, while the rest of the UK votes to remain.

Moving away from how British political parties have reacted to Cameron’s demands for renegotiations, below I shall look at how Cameron’s renegotiation proposals have been reagrded by some member states and what this means for Cameron’s renegotiation strategy.

Cameron’s demand of a ‘four-year wait before EU migrants who are employed in Britain can claim welfare benefits’ caught the attention of most of EU member states. Polish PM Beata Syzdlo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Swedish PM Stefan Lofven and Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt have all openly opposed Cameron’s proposal to restrict welfare benefits. So did the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Council president Donald Tusk.

However at the same time they all showed sympathy with Cameron, signaling that they are open to negotiations. While Ms. Syzdlo said: ‘We understand the proposals David Cameron is bringing and we’re open for discussion. We’ll do everything in order to support our British partner’, but this appears an empty promise as Syzdlo opposes the change Cameron wants to achieve. Ms. Merkel called Britain a ‘natural ally’, by which Merkel wanted to make the Brits feel that Germany is on the same side as the UK. Furthermore Merkel gave hope to the UK government by saying that ‘the EU had in the past addressed other countries’ issues in the bloc and it could be done again’. Similarly Mr Hollande commented it would be ‘unacceptable’ for Cameron to question the founding principles of the EU, but he indicated there can be adjustments and accommodation. Hollande’s position is awkward for it is impossible to not to question the principles of the EU when it has been suggested that adjustments and accommodation can be achieved on these very principles. Agreeing with Hollande and Merkel on the core principles of the EU, Mr. Van Overtveldt also indicated that ‘Europe is something … you work on altogether and you try to achieve something altogether’, suggesting Cameron should needs to begin discussion with MSs and he should be able to work together with the other leaders to reach the outcome he wants. Van Overtveldt suggested that through negotiations and working together with the EU institutions and MSs, Cameron could achieve his reforms. How much Cameron is willing to work with the EU institutions and MS is the question every one should have on their mind.

Overall it is surprising to note that most MS paid attention to the same reform plan Cameron proposed and it is more surprising that they all opposed it. At the same, in contrary to their opposition to Cameron’s reform on the benefits for the EU migrants, they all appeared to have suggested that this reform plan could be negotiated, talked over and adjusted or accommodated. This is a contradictory position. Additionally, they either lacked interest or consciously overlooked the other reforms Cameron listed in his letter to Tusk. This is a strategic choice and it is done to divert the attention of the public from the immigration related reform area and to present how hard it is for Cameron to get this reform through.

After the meeting on 17 December, it was reported that there was ‘no consensus’ on Cameron’s demand on welfare reforms. It was subsequently reported to the Financial Times and Agence France Presse that officials were considering whether the UK could be granted an “emergency brake” on overall migration if it could be proved that public services such as schools and hospitals were being put under undue pressure. This suggests a ‘pathway to agreement’ for Cameron is achievable and EU leaders will try to strike a deal with Mr Cameron at a follow-up summit in February 2016.

by Gulay Icoz