The Juncker Commission's reforming zeal should aid Cameron in presenting the EU as a source of 'jobs, growth and innovation', but the reaction of the UK's EU partners to any assault on 'social Europe' must be considered.
Cameron must convince
Cameron and George Osborne therefore face considerable barriers of ideological understanding in persuading their supporters that the EU has now grasped the nettle of improving European competitiveness. Conservative Eurosceptics (though this is not true of Cameron and Osborne personally) have never properly understood the difference between a free trade area and the much deeper economic integration that the single market makes possible. [...]
When Conservative Eurosceptics talk of a ‘reformed’ EU, they imagine British membership of an entity which is confined to the limited purposes of ‘trade and cooperation’. There is no way Cameron and Osborne can in practice deliver on this aspiration. The question is how far they will press for mere symbols.
In seeking to satisfy their own Eurosceptics, one obvious blind alley that Cameron and Osborne might venture down would be to press for a renewal of John Major’s Maastricht opt-out from the ‘social chapter’. So far they have made no explicit commitment to this. [...]
This caution is for good reason. The whole of the ‘social Europe’ area is a legal and political minefield for the British Conservatives. They would be wise to steer clear. First, there is no longer an overwhelming demand from business in the UK that EU social legislation represents an unsupportable burden. This was evident in the major study of the European issue that the CBI presented in advance of their annual conference in November 2014. [...]
The British could of course now press for a separate opt-out from the working time directive, but for reasons explained below, it is very difficult to see how this could be achieved. If such an opt-out amounted to a treaty change, the French for certain would use their veto on the grounds that it would permit ‘social dumping’. [...]
Second, there is no longer a separate ‘social chapter’ in the EU treaties from which Britain could seek a general opt-out. Rather, the Lisbon treaty entrenches social objectives within the overall aims of the EU. [...]
Third, any attempt to weaken Britain’s commitment to the existing social acquis would be a symbol to some of our partners of ‘social dumping’. [...]The Delors idea that the single market has to be ‘flanked’ by effective regulation in the social, environmental and consumer fields is deeply entrenched in European thinking.
Fourth, it would divide the pro-European constituency in Britain. Opt-outs from EU social legislation could tip the trade unions and large sections of the Labour party into opposition to Europe in the coming referendum. [...]
Fifth, were EU social legislation no longer to apply to the UK, the government would have to be clear what, if anything, would take its place. [...]
These seem powerful practical arguments for Cameron to steer clear of the social question. What Cameron might obtain is a commitment from the commission to ‘modernise’ the existing body of EU social legislation for the labour market of the 21st century. The commission has already made a commitment in principle to such a review. This would be a worthwhile endeavour, and doubtless Cameron and Osborne could dress up the objectives of such a review in language that would appeal to their Eurosceptics. But the idea that the outcome of such a review could be specified in detail in advance in time for a British referendum is wholly unachievable. Those who fear that the result would be a weakening of social protection should remember that every line of every legislative proposal would have to be approved by the European parliament. [...]
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