The never closer union – a political perspective on the EU renegotiation debate

Will David Cameron’s renegotiation effort be enough to convince his Party and the public to vote “Stay”?

On Tuesday David Cameron wrote a letter to the European Council President Donald Tusk to spell out his renegotiation checklist.

The Prime Minister set out four “challenging” goals and underlined that a new membership deal must be “legally binding”. In summary David Cameron, demands that the UK should be exempted from the commitment to an “ever-closer union”, which has been in EU Treaties since 1957.

Furthermore, he demands a restriction of benefits for migrants, protection from Eurozone integration and an improved competitiveness. In their essence, the listed demands are neither new nor groundbreaking. Cameron’s renegotiation checklist has been examined, discussed and altered multiple times during the past months in Downing Street, Brussels and the great capitals of Europe. The demands are exactly what were expected and yet, there have been some strong reactions to the Prime Minister’s letter.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the Prime Minister’s benefit restriction proposals are “highly problematic” since they affected the “fundamental freedoms of our internal market” and led to “direct discrimination between EU citizens”. Also Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, declared that he had “strong doubts” about the legality of the Prime Minister’s demands. He particularly underlined his concerns about the four-year ban on access to welfare benefits for EU citizens.

However, overall Brussels strives for a European Union with the United Kingdom rather than without it, which means that there is certainly negotiation leverage for Cameron. Already in September, Jean-Claude Juncker has said that he seeks a fair deal for the UK on its continued EU membership and some of Cameron’s requests such as the cutting of red tape are even part of Juncker’s own agenda. However, the President of the Commission also emphasized that the UK must maintain key freedoms, including labour mobility – a point Brussels will stand firmly behind.

Germany, the biggest country in the European Union, prefers the UK to remain an EU member as well. Although the German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not go above and beyond to accommodate all points of David Cameron’s pre-Christmas wish list, she is trying to keep the Union together and regards the UK as her liberal market-policy ally that has always been a balance to the French “Planification”.

The French President, Francois Hollande, also does not want the UK to leave but at the same time does not want to make many concessions. France is even likely to resist suggestions to reopen EU treaties making it difficult for the UK to settle the issue of British protection from Eurozone integration. One of Hollande’s main concerns is that the debate about a “Brexit” might foster populist leaders’ demands to undo the EU in France, which is why there is a general tendency to avoid the issue.

Italy and Spain are not as engaged on the British renegotiations as other countries. If Britain would leave the EU, Italy and Spain would form the three biggest EU states after Germany, which would likely give them more leverage within the European Union. However, that doesn’t mean that they would favour this outcome. Particularly Spain is worried that a Brexit could revive the momentum for Scottish independence and ultimately spill over to Catalonia.

Since European immigrants in the UK are predominantly from Poland, it is inevitable to consider the role of Warsaw in the renegotiation debate. The Polish government will certainly fight against limitations on freedom of movement and curbs on benefits for Poles living in Britain with the former being one of the biggest perks of their EU membership. This week John Rentoul wrote an interesting article referring to just this.

The outcome of the EU renegotiations is therefore everything but certain. While it is likely Cameron will be able to find many allies in the first two areas – Economic governance and Competitiveness – the bulk of the challenge is going to be on immigration and welfare regulation for EU citizens.

The much bigger question, however, is whether David Cameron’s requests will even be enough to convince Tory Eurosceptics and the British population to stay in the European Union.

Unsurprisingly, Eurosceptic MPs have already denounced David Cameron’s EU reforms as inadequate. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called Cameron’s EU reform plans “pretty thin gruel” and Bernard Jenkin, another Conservative, simply asked: “Is that it?”. They claim that the Prime Minister’s demands are truly not more than a gesture to appease his critics and they might be right. Tory rebels – according to the Guardian about a third of current backbenchers are suspected of being closet outers – will take this as an opportunity to show that the Government has wasted a historic opportunity to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and make their case for a final exit. This rekindles memories of the Maastricht revolt in the early 1990s, where a group of Tory “bastards” became a party within a party organising their own whips for crucial votes. Prominent Tory Eurosceptics such as Sir Bill Cash already signalled that the Prime Minister might face a tougher fight with his own party than with European leaders.

If Eurosceptics succeed in their aim for Britain to leave the European Union there might be far-reaching repercussions, particularly since the referendum debate could not come at a worse time. European Union members have never been as divided as they are now with Greece’s economy still struggling, thousands of refugees landing on Europe’s shores every day and Portugal entering a politically uncertain future. The old aspiration of an ever-closer union has turned into the reality of a union that is struggling to stay together. If Britain was to leave there might even be a domino effect dragging other countries with it.

David Cameron was therefore right in saying that the referendum is “probably the most important decision the British people will have to take at the ballot box in our lifetime“ – not only for their country, but also for the European Union itself.