David Cameron should reframe the EU negotiation, both in Britain and in the rest of the European Union, says former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.
The British government’s plan to renegotiate the terms of its membership to the European Union (EU) has not come at a good time. The EU is tackling the possibility of Greece leaving the euro, as well as Ukraine going bankrupt while simultaneously being dismantled by Russia.
Now, while doing all that, the EU must also address itself to a—yet to be revealed—British renegotiation agenda. It is likely that this agenda, to some extent, will be shaped around British Prime Minister David Cameron’s assessment of what he considers to stand a good chance of being conceded. He is touring EU capitals to find that out. This is a sensible and pragmatic approach on his part.
What he gets will probably not satisfy the 100 or so Tory members of parliament (MP) who simply want the United Kingdom to leave the EU. And with a majority of only 12, Cameron cannot ignore these MPs. Other EU leaders will have to judge how close they should go to their bottom line, just to satisfy opinion in a country that may leave the European Union anyway.
There is one issue on which Cameron’s demands are already very explicit and clear: the rights of recent EU immigrants living in the UK. This may, or may not, include Irish immigrants living in Britain, but it could be difficult in European Union law for Britain—inside the EU—to discriminate in favor of the Irish against other EU nationals
The Conservative Party election manifesto could not be clearer on the position of recent immigrants from other EU countries. It says that if EU “jobseekers have not found a job within 6 months, they will be required to leave.” This seems to be in direct conflict with Article 20 of the EU Treaty, which gives EU citizens a right to “move and reside freely within the territory of (other) member states.”
Furthermore, the manifesto recalls that the government has already banned housing benefits for EU immigrants, and it goes on to say: “We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credit and child benefit must have lived here for five years.” This seems in flat contradiction of Article 45 of the EU Treaty, which requires “the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of employment.”
Tax credits are a form of negative income tax. If discrimination in respect of tax credits were to be permitted, it would become impossible—within the EU—to resist a proposal to apply different income tax rates, or different tax-free allowances, to people of other EU nationalities.
The irony of the British government’s position is that it wants a stronger single market, with greater freedom to sell goods and services, and move capital across boundaries within the EU. But it wishes to resist the freedom of movement of workers across EU boundaries. This will be seen by many in the rest of the European Union as ideologically biased, as well as discriminatory.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a politician who always looks for hard evidence, will be interested to discover that, between 2005-14, only 33% of immigrants to the UK came from other EU countries. Only 2.5% of all benefit claimants in Britain originate from other European Union countries, and EU immigrants to the United Kingdom are only half as likely, as native British subjects, to claim benefits.
Another knotty question, within the UK itself, will be the position of the devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. For example, given their electoral support level, how can Prime Minister Cameron exclude the Scottish National Party (SNP) from the British negotiating team? Offering to include them could be good politics. Excluding them from the negotiating team, if they requested a place, would make a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom more likely.
A British demand is likely to be the repatriation of more powers, from Brussels to the 28 member parliaments, including Westminster. The difficulty here is that a comprehensive “Competence Review” by the UK Foreign Office, across the whole range of EU powers, failed to come up with many concrete suggestions for powers that ought to be repatriated.
The UK may also demand a “red card” system, whereby EU laws—already approved in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, where the UK is already well-represented in both—could be derailed by vetoes from a number of national parliaments. This would prolong and delay the already laborious process of EU law making.
It would also run directly counter to another UK demand: the completion of the EU single market. For example, the outstanding matters of creating a single market in digital services, energy and in capital for lending, which are all in the UK’s interests, require more new EU laws, not less.
The proposed “red card” would be more likely to be used by other EU states to block things the UK wants, rather than the other way around.
These difficulties all suggest that David Cameron should seek to reframe the entire negotiation, both in the way he presents it at home and in the rest of the European Union. Rather than looking for exceptions for the UK, he should emphasize Britain’s capacity to take the lead in the EU in clearing away barriers to economic growth across all of Europe, a stance that would play to his country’s strength and would put others on the back foot.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.