The process of renegotiating the UK’s EU membership is often portrayed as a discussion between the UK on one side and ‘Europe’ on the other. In this configuration, the European Union’s member states would only be confronted with UK demands and their sole concern would be to find compromises acceptable to the UK. However, the situation is not that clear-cut.
First, ‘Europe’ is not a single entity but a collection of 28 member states, which all have their national interests. Second, the demands presented by the British government would affect all EU member states as well as the functioning of the EU. It means that national governments will not think of the UK’s concerns first, but of their own interests. If they coincide with those of the UK, this is good news for London. In most cases where interests do not fully meet, member states will either balance their preferences with those of the UK as a show of good faith or they will reject the demands as contradictory to their interests as well as their views of a proper functioning of the EU. In other terms, this is not a “renegotiation” of the UK membership to the EU. The interests of all member states will come into play, which will make the negotiations less straightforward, messier and possibly longer than expected.
Since his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, David Cameron has sought to portray his demands as designed not only to advance the UK’s own interests but also to improve the workings of the EU itself – a message he repeated at Chatham House on 10 November 2015.
In reality, the Government’s reform agenda meshes demands specifically tailored to the UK with others that require EU-wide reform. In some cases, member states may think in terms of what could satisfy the UK’s demands while in others they may primarily consider their own interests and the impact of the UK’s demands on the functioning of the EU. This can best be illustrated by looking at the four areas of reform sought by the government.
On “economic governance”, the government seeks to secure a fair deal for member states outside the Euro. This is a tricky issue for the Government. The “fair deal” the UK is seeking has attracted some relative support from other non-eurozone EU member states such as Denmark although it is difficult to gauge the extent of their backing. There may eventually be ways to envisage a “British model of membership” as David Cameron wants, but this debate cannot be separated from that on the future of the Eurozone. Yet no one within the EU is ready for a fully-fledged debate on the Eurozone in the coming months.
When it comes to “competitiveness”, a question affecting the 28, the issue of burdensome EU regulation is already being tackled by the European Commission. Moreover, the completion of the single market in services, energy, capital markets and digital tech is ongoing. No sudden breakthrough is to be expected, but genuine negotiations are on-track. Finally, the EU is also exploring the possibility of trade deals with partners such as Australia and Indonesia, as well as negotiating a trade partnership with the US.
On “sovereignty”, accepting the UK’s demand for an opt-out from “ever closer union” would be a clear concession to the British. However, offering an opt-out on parts of a full sentence seems unlikely. The EU treaty indeed talks of an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. The full phrase is seldom mentioned in UK speeches and can hardly be considered as a call for a supranational state. In light of the full quote, it would be odd for member states to agree to an opt-out just on the words “ever closer union”. Secondly, progress may be hindered by the fact some other EU member states might like to profit form a similar exemption as it would be perceived as the rallying cry for political forces opposed to further integration. This might strengthen resistance from different capitals, such as Paris.
Britain’s demand for an increased role for national parliaments in EU decision-making has limited support in the rest of the EU, but it remains an issue to be discussed between the 28 member states. Whilst some national parliaments would gladly welcome more influence, their respective governments do not always share this view – partly through a belief that the existing ‘yellow card’ procedure has not been sufficiently tested.
Finally, the UK’s demands on immigration are highly problematic. First, acceding to them would create an exception for the UK since it would likely be a non-starter to have an EU-wide four-year ban on access to benefits. Secondly, it would jeopardise the fundamental notion of non-discrimination among European citizens enshrined in the treaty. As such it is vehemently opposed by many Eastern members of the EU keen on free movement of labour, but it also meets the opposition of many Western members who feel that this is a cornerstone of the European Union.
In a nutshell, very few, if any, of the UK’s demands can be strictly considered as unfolding in a 27 vs. one negotiation process. The more negotiations touch upon the interests of all 28 member states, the more member states will look after their interests first. Whilst the British government might like to think that keeping the UK in the EU is a priority for its partners, these partners will consider first and foremost what the outcome of the negotiation might mean for their own interests. In other words, EU member states want the UK in the EU, but not at all costs.
Vivien Pertusot is Head of Brussels at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri)