After much prodding, Prime Minister David Cameron recently sent his “EU Change Request” letter to Council President Donald Tusk. For a long time he had avoided a written confirmation of his wishes, both for fear that his EU adversaries in the country would pounce on them as “too Little”, and that the other 27 countries might pin him down on these requests. And, as if to prove the latter interpretation, just two weeks after he sent this letter, he attempted to up his ante by requesting an immediate treaty change. Only a call to order by Angela Merkel led him to withdraw this – absolutely impossible – request. Whether he lodged it because he saw that the EU was mainly occupied by the refugee and terrorism matters and thought he could slip an EU-sceptics pacifying request to his partners, only he himself will know. It was an utter failure. Of course, Cameron is caught between a rock and a hard place: in 2013 he accepted the EU in/out Referendum (by 2017 at the latest), in order to keep his about 100 EU-sceptic Tories in check and outdo the UKIP Party. Now he needs to deliver and probably thought he could outfox the other EU heads of state. He diligently has been doing his recent “tour des capitales”, in order to soften the resistance or even obtain approval for his requests. His hope that all this could be decided at the coming EU summit on Dec. 17/18 has in the meantime evaporated. To the serious EU observer this was an absolute no-no: such an important question which might influence whether the EU can maintain momentum or whether UK’s exit will be the first step towards disintegration, requires serious thought: not only by the prime Ministers, but also by their parliaments and the populations at large.
Cameron is asking for changes in four Areas, all in a legally binding way: The first is a veto against Eurozone decisions which affect the nine non-Euro countries. This requires an explicit clause that the EU contains several currencies, that there can be no discrimination against those countries which opted out of the Eurozone, that the integrity of the Single European Market is guaranteed (in clear language, he wants an absolute safeguard for the interests of the City of London), that the planned Banking Union does not apply to the UK, and that the Euro-Outs will never have to pay for activities and failures of the Eurozone. The second area concerns “Competitiveness”, one of the UK obsessions: Cameron wants further deregulation of the markets, an integrated digital area, but also further steps towards the so-called Capital Markets Union (it will remain his secret how that is compatible with his resistance against the Banking Union). Cameron specifically mentions the importance of three of the four pillars of the Single Market, namely the free flow of goods, services and capital (but not: persons!!). His third request concerns “Sovereignty”. He wants an explicit exception from the enshrined objective of “ever closer Union”, the primacy of the UK Parliament before the EU Parliament, but also non-application of EU Court of Justice verdicts to the UK. And, last and most contentious, the fourth part concerns “Immigration”. Cameron would like to restrict immigration both from inside and outside the EU. (In the last parliament he promised to restrict net immigration to several thousand persons, in reality it is in the hundred thousands). This request is most contentious, since it violates the fourth pillar of the EU: the free flow of persons. Operationally, Cameron would like to achieve this target by denying new immigrants the right to UK benefits for 4 years, and to deny children of immigrants living abroad family subsidies. In addition, attempting to accommodate the newly xenophobic atmosphere in the country, he “generously” offered to accept 20.000 Syrian refugees within three years. This was supposed to be a sweetener for his partners.
Now at least Cameron’s requests for change are clear to his partners, even though he himself admits that (important) Details need to be left to actual negotiations, some of which have already started. Of course, Cameron cannot guarantee his partners that if they accede to his demands, the referendum will opt for remaining in the EU. He only promises that if he gets what he wants, he will campaign for EU Membership.
In strategic terms two separate Levels need to be distinguished: in his negotiations with his partners he needs to convince especially those from whose territory many citizens have emigrated to the UK, i.e. Poland, the Baltic countries, Romania and Bulgaria. They all are vehemently against giving in. In public, many of these prime ministers have been quite vague, but in fact they are vehemently against deteriorations for their own citizens. And Angela Merkel and others see themselves as guardians of the EU Treaty and oppose treaty Change at this time. The basic question for UK’s EU Partners is whether they can and should accept further raisin picking by the UK, in Addition to its rebate of EU contributions, its opt-out from the Euro, the constant veto against tax harmonization, etc), whether it is worth in the long run to give in to another set of far-reaching UK demands. The really pertinent question is whether a notorious troublemaker, but also a driving force of the Single Market, should be better in or out of the European Union. The most recent show of “Goodwill” by the UK in sending the Royal Air Force to bomb IS might impress their “Special friend”, the United States, more than some of their European Partners.
But for Cameron the probably more important issue is domestic: a large number of his own cabinet ministers, about one third of “his” parliamentarians and more than half the UK Population (if not more) are in favor of leaving the EU at this time. The “Vote Leave” campaign has started full swing: firms and financial enterprises which come out in favor of EU Membership are threatened with boycott; a large part of the British press highlights every perceived failure or problem of the EU (In Austria, we remember Jörg Haider’s campaign). The integrity of Britain is also at stake, since in Scotland the dominating Scottish National Party has vowed to break away, if England votes against membership. Cameron made a grave error when he agreed to the Referendum. He has painted himself into a corner from which he cannot escape. Rational arguments in favor of membership are drowned out by emotional, sovereignty-extolling clamor, which touches emotions. Political arguments do not count in this campaign, but I would like to see a pro-EU strategy which can touch the hearts (not only the minds) of the electorate. The economic weakness of the Eurozone, the foreign-policy emaciation of the EU, the divisiveness of the refugee Problem (where in addition to the UK, all the previously Socialist member countries are against humanitarian aid), plus a number of unsolved issues – all these seem to militate against continued membership – and are thoroughly instrumentalized by the Vote Leave campaign.
The 27 EU Partners need to engage into a deep dialogue with their citizens on this question – in spite of the unfortunate timing, coinciding with combating terrorism, receiving flows of asylum seekers, weak economies, increasing unemployment. We cannot choose when problems arise. But we, the EU population, need to be engaged with this question. We need parliamentary enquiries, citizens fora, as preparations for our prime Ministers to decide on the “UK question” (most likely in February 2016). Is it worth keeping Britain in (this would require to find ways to accommodate at least some of Cameron’s requests), or would the European Union be stronger and better off without the UK. Would an UK Exit be the beginning of a further disintegration of the EU, or would an exist of the UK lead to a more functional EU? Before our prime ministers cast their votes, before they engage in substantial discussions with the UK, they need to ask their People.