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17 October 2015

The Economist: The reluctant European

Though Britain has always been rather half-hearted about the European Union, its membership has been beneficial for all concerned, argues John Peet. It should stay in the club.

[...] Yet the reforms that Mr Cameron has since gone on to propose, most recently at an EU meeting of heads of government in June, hardly match this rhetoric of fundamental change. That may be why his government has been coy about setting them out in much detail ahead of the EU summit in December that is meant to agree to them. Still, his proposals can be summarised under six broad headings.

First, migration. Mr Cameron is seeking to put a stop to “welfare tourism” by limiting some benefits for new immigrants. In particular, he wants a four-year ban on benefits, including those paid to people in work, being claimed by migrants who arrive from the rest of the EU. Second, he is looking for a general reduction in EU regulation, and in some cases a repatriation of regulatory powers from Brussels to national capitals. Third, he would like to see a stronger push to complete the single market in such fields as services, digital technology and energy. Fourth, he is demanding some form of opt-out for Britain from the treaties’ objective of “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. Fifth, he is determined to give national parliaments, which he calls the true source of democratic authority in the European project, greater powers to block EU legislation. And finally, he wants a guarantee that an increasingly integrated euro zone will not act against the interests of EU countries that remain outside it. [...]

Even more important, no EU country and none of the Brussels elite actively want Britain to leave. Everybody understands that Brexit would inflict grave damage on the EU (though some reckon that the damage to Britain would be greater still). As one of Europe’s most important powers in foreign policy and defence, Britain would be missed. Yet it is also clear that there are limits to the concessions other countries are willing to make to persuade it to stay. And Mr Cameron is well aware that the reforms he is looking for will need the assent not just of the governments of all 27 other EU countries but, in most cases, of the European Parliament as well.

He also knows that treaty change is unpopular, difficult to achieve and slow to implement. That means he may have to settle for a protocol or some other binding declaration that will be formally ratified only if and when a future treaty is in the works (this is sometimes called a “postdated cheque”, modelled on concessions offered to Denmark and Ireland in the past and ratified only later). David Lidington, Britain’s Europe minister, says the government is insisting only that the eventual deal must be “irreversible and legally binding”. [...]

Even so, several of the changes on Mr Cameron’s wishlist will be tricky to secure. A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, concluded that two-thirds of Mr Cameron’s proposals lacked sufficient support from other member governments to pass. Promises to complete the single market and cut back future regulation are vague enough to be endorsed across the EU, but any British attempts to water down existing rules will be resisted, most strongly by the French and the European Parliament. East European countries will fight restrictions on benefits for migrants within the EU, and even Spain and France are not convinced they are a good idea. Euro-enthusiasts may not want to offer a legally watertight British opt-out from ever closer union, however malleable the phrase may be in practice. And the European Parliament may oppose efforts to give national parliaments greater powers to block EU legislation.

Yet most EU experts in national capitals expect that, perhaps after some stage-managed rows at EU summits in the small hours, it should be possible to agree on a set of reforms that are reasonably close to what Mr Cameron is asking for. And most also believe that this should be enough for him to persuade Britons to vote for remaining in the EU.


The Labour Party’s new leader, Mr Corbyn, could also make life harder for Mr Cameron. He is by instinct a Eurosceptic, even if a substantial majority of his party is not. He sees the EU as a capitalist, liberal club that is too fond of austerity, and also as a possible threat to his plans to renationalise the railways and utilities. Although he has said he will campaign to remain in, he is unlikely to do much to help Mr Cameron win his referendum.

That makes it all the more pressing to understand the roots of British Euroscepticism. As many in Brussels lament, hostility to the EU and doubts about the euro have spread from Aalborg to Athens and from Paris to Prague. The drawn-out euro crisis, in particular, has sapped trust in the EU everywhere (see chart). Yet of all the EU’s 28 members, only Britain is seriously considering leaving the club altogether. Why?

Full article in The Economist (subscription required)

© The Economist

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