Queen's Policy Engagement

EU Referendum: Brexit Looming?

As the UK moves closer towards a referendum on EU membership, Professor David Phinnemore asks what chance David Cameron has of ‘renegotiating’ the UK's membership.

EU Referendum: Brexit Looming?

The Conservatives’ general election success has set the United Kingdom firmly on the road to a referendum on its continued membership of the European Union (EU). The EU referendum will take place no later than the second half of 2017; with an increasing possibility that it may happen well before that, as early as spring 2016.  The referendum question has still to be determined, but the vote will be about whether the United Kingdom remains a member of the EU or not. If it votes to stay in it will most likely be on new terms of membership; if it votes no, ‘Brexit’ – a British exit – will probably follow.

A key unanswered question is what those ‘new’ terms of membership will be. David Cameron’s keynote Bloomberg speech in January 2013 in which he promised an ‘in-out’ referendum revealed very little. While clear on the principles on which a reformed EU should be built – competitiveness, flexibility, power being able to flow back to member states, democratic accountability, fairness – Cameron was almost silent on what substantive changes he would be seeking as part of a ‘new settlement’ for the United Kingdom. In the intervening two years, beyond some ‘targets’ outlined in an article for the Daily Telegraph in March 2014, the Prime Minister has kept his cards close to his chest. Specifics are in short supply, much to the frustration of many of the leaders of the EU’s other 27 member states with whom the new settlement will have to be negotiated and any related treaty changes agreed. Even campaigning during the general election shed little light on Cameron’s plans. The Conservative Party manifesto called for ‘real change’ in the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU but was decidedly thin on detail.

Based on public utterances, the list of changes the Prime Minister will seek appears quite limited. In his Daily Telegraph article, Cameron mentioned controls on immigration, new powers for national parliaments to block unwanted EU legislation, less ‘red tape’ and ‘excessive interference’ from the EU, more powers ‘flowing away’ from ‘Brussels’ and ensuring that the principle of ‘ever closer union’ does not apply to the United Kingdom. Since then the issue of immigration has received most attention with Cameron now insisting on EU migrants being denied access to unemployment and in-work benefits for four years. A further concern is the future of eurozone integration and fears that eurozone members may ‘caucus’ on single market legislation thus damaging the interests of those, like the United Kingdom, outside. Cameron wants safeguards against this happening.

Is this all that Cameron will be seeking? In truth we do not know. As it stands the list is not particularly impressive; and if implemented would not represent a particularly radical change to the UK’s relationship.  On the one hand, much of what Cameron is seeking is already available: national parliaments can force the Commission to re-consider legislative proposals; the United Kingdom along  with all other member states has a veto over further integration and therefore ‘ever closer union’; provision already exists to revert powers back to the member states. There is much smoke and mirrors in the presentation of what would amount to a ‘new settlement’. One has to question whether, with the exception of the demands for curbs on EU migration, what is currently envisaged will really fundamentally alter the nature, legally at least, of the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU. Legally, little will change. Politically, whatever is agreed will cement the United Kingdom’s position on the margins of the EU.

Even if Cameron does wish to add to the list of what he is seeking – and there will be pressure to do so – the scope for action has been severely limited by the outcome of the previous government’s own balance of competences review. This wide-ranging consultation exercise that involved 3000 pages of evidence from 1500 groups and individuals subjected existing EU competences to extensive scrutiny. It was designed to reveal where renegotiation should be pursued, yet essentially concluded that the current balance, taking into consideration the various UK opt-outs, notably from the euro, suited UK interests. In not one of the 32 reports was a case made for the repatriation of any powers from the EU to the United Kingdom.

Cameron effectively has a month to pull together the list of reforms he is seeking. Having had to endure two years of his vague calls for a reform and renegotiation, other EU leaders are now expecting detail from the Prime Minister when they next meet as the European Council on 25 June. They will then have to decide how far they are willing to go in accommodating him. On the one hand, the widespread desire to keep the United Kingdom in the EU means there will be a readiness to negotiate some concessions, although anything that threatens the fundamental principles of the EU, notably the internal market, is unlikely to be accepted. And Cameron will be hard pushed to make the case for restrictions on the free movement of labour. He cannot legitimately call for the single market to be at the core of the EU and for it to be completed with regard to services and the energy and digital sectors and then seek to undermine one of its other fundamental elements.

On the other hand, various political declarations and the odd legislative amendment could be used to address most of the issues current on his list. Treaty amendment would be required for any change regarding the free movement of labour, assuming such a change were to be accepted by the other 27 member states. Under Cameron’s referendum timetable – particularly if shortened to allow for a vote in 2016 – it would be impossible to give the amendments legal force before the referendum takes place. Political agreement could, however, be reached on the substantive treaty change with the amendment being made at a later date. The Danish experience in holding a second referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht provides a precedent of sorts, as does the experience with the Irish Guarantees that facilitated the holding of the second Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon.

Once again, a key question here is: will declarations and promissory notes be enough? The long standing demand of eurosceptic backbenchers has been for any concessions successfully negotiated to be given full legal force through treaty change.  And for the Prime Minister, treaty reform has become a totemic issue. Yet, a limited number of clear substantive demands, the referendum timetable, opposition to treaty reform elsewhere in the EU and the long-standing EU preference for pragmatic political solutions to political problems are all conspiring against the adoption of a significant text that could realistically be claimed to constitute the ‘new settlement’ to the UK’s membership of the EU that Cameron promised in his Bloomberg speech.

Cameron faces a major challenge in securing a meaningful renegotiation of the terms of UK membership of the EU. This is all very much of his own making. The UK political debate about ‘Europe’ has been primarily about having a referendum not about the actual nature of the EU and the existing substance and terms of UK membership. Insufficient thought has been given to either what change, through treaty reform, is actually required and what can be realistically achieved if the United Kingdom is to remain part of a club based on an already finely negotiated balance of rights and obligations. If a substantive renegotiation is not secured and the absence of immediate treaty reform fails to meet expectations for a ‘new settlement’, there is a serious risk that the referendum will be lost and Brexit will loom even larger on the horizon.

David Phinnemore is Professor of European Politics in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast.

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