Cameron's EU Balancing Act

David Cameron may well find that his proposals are not enough for Eurosceptic Tories while at the same time being too much for his EU partners and many voters inclined to remain, says Michael Keating.  
David Cameron’s four demands outlined in the letter to the European Council will not satisfy his own Eurosceptics and may be too much for his EU partners to accept. It is not at all clear how some elements would work. 
The first demand is to insulate the UK from adverse decisions taken by Eurozone countries. This is a concern for the financial sector and the City of London and is a complex matter. It could be established as a principle without formal treaty change but it is unlikely that the Eurozone countries would allow the UK to dictate their own affairs, creating a European West Lothian Question. There are also echoes here of the ‘no detriment’ principle in the Smith Commission report, which turned out in practice to be almost impossible to define. All therefore depends on the detail.
The commitment to ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ was accepted in an earlier treaty as the insistence of the UK, which opposed anything stronger. To remove it would require treaty change and the effect would be largely symbolic.
Another demand is to emphasize competiveness and deregulation. Competitiveness is already embedded in the EU’s priorities under successive ‘Lisbon Agenda’ and ‘Europe 2020’ programmes, so there is nothing to change there. Deregulation is another matter if it means dismantling European labour protection. Other states will be reluctant to allow the UK to steal a competitive advantage by lowering work standards.
The proposal to allow a group of national parliaments to veto EU laws is puzzling. In most EU states, governments have a majority in parliament so that the distinction between a governmental veto and a parliamentary one is moot. National governments finally lost their vetoes in the 1980s, with the support of the UK, which saw qualified majority (QMV) voting as the only way to drive through the Single Market measures that the then Conservative Government wanted. QMV gives groups of governments the right to veto laws, so unless national parliaments are going to defy their governments, it is difficult to see what this adds. If it does add another tier of vetoes, it would prejudice the kind of reforms towards deregulation that the British Government wants.
The emphasis on migration remains, with a commitment to reduce the number of EU citizen coming to the UK to live and work. This is not open for negotiation, as the Conservatives’ Eurosceptic allies in Poland have made clear. Changing in-work benefits is unlikely to make much difference to the flow and might itself be illegal as it would discriminate between British and European workers. 
None of these issues or even all of them taken together seems enough to justify an in-out referendum, as opposed to the normal political exchange within the EU. David Cameron will, however, need something that he can present as a victory if he is to win back enough Conservative Eurosceptics. If he stresses deregulation too strongly, however, he risks losing the Labour voters he will need to stay in the EU, since it looks as though most Conservatives will vote No. 

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Michael Keating's picture
post by Michael Keating
University of Aberdeen
11th November 2015
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