Cameron has never been very forthcoming on exactly what EU reforms he would seek. After all, spelling it out risks splitting his party further.
But, with a general election approaching, he can no longer avoid identifying at least the headlines. On the Andrew Marr show last Sunday, he mentioned four headlines. He also said that “they do involve […] proper, full-on treaty change” — something he hadn’t specified in his autumn speech, but which, of course, renders the whole exercise even more difficult.
So, what are the four items he has finally identified? It’s worth looking at them in detail.
A red herring
We need to get out of ever-closer union. That is something that shouldn’t apply to the United Kingdom.
Such a “reform”, changing wording in the declaratory preamble of the EU treaty which has no direct legal effect, would be purely symbolic. In any case, the full text is “an ever-closer union among the peoples [not the states] of Europe in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity” — the principle that the EU should act in as decentralised a way as possible.
This clause was pushed for by the last Conservative government when negotiating the Maastricht Treaty. Amending it now would require a treaty change that is unlikely to be agreed, and is anyway totally unnecessary. Concerns about too much centralisation in the Union have already been addressed in the binding legal requirements, set out in Articles 4 and 5 of the treaty itself rather than in the declaratory preamble, whereby the EU:
- may act “only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States in the Treaties” (principle of conferred powers)
- and even then act “only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States” (principle of subsidiarity)
- and even then “the content and form of Union action shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties” (principle of proportionality)
- and it must “respect their essential State functions” of the member states including national security which “remains the sole responsibility of each Member State”.
These guarantees were secured in the treaty by the Labour government. They are further guaranteed by the fact that EU procedures require the approval of the EU Council — composed of national ministers from the member states — for the EU to take any legislative action to implement the treaty. These legal requirements demonstrate that the idea of a centralised Union replacing Europe’s member countries is a myth.
A damp squib
We need parliaments to be able to combine to block regulations. I think that is very important.
Note the wording that parliaments must “combine” to block regulations. What Cameron is getting at is to beef up the existing procedure whereby national parliaments can object to European Commission proposals on the ground that they go beyond the EU’s remit (principle of subsidiary). If just one third of them object, the Commission must withdraw, amend or justify its proposal. This is known as the “yellow card” procedure.
Now, the “yellow card” procedure has been triggered only twice in the five years of its existence. The thing is that proposals can be killed off anyway later in the procedure, in the EU Council, where national ministers essentially have a ‘red card’ — nothing gets through if a minority of them combine to reject it.
So Cameron is proposing to reinforce a little-used procedure that simply duplicates an easier option to block proposals later on. Wow! If he had more friends across Europe, this would not be a problem in the first place.
He also neatly avoids the obvious way to strengthen national parliamentary scrutiny — one which doesn’t require negotiation with anyone! This would be to apply in Britain what the Nordic countries already do – to require any minister going to a meeting in Brussels to get a mandate for their negotiating position from the relevant parliamentary committee before leaving, rather than just telling them about it afterwards. But of course, Cameron is not interested in that!
We need guarantees that, as the single currency gets more countries in it, the single market which Britain remains in is properly protected.
The government has long argued that the eurozone needs further integration and that it might become a hard core within the EU, marginalising non-euro countries.
In fact, although the countries that share a common currency do need to do more together to manage that situation, the bulk of what the EU does remains at the level of the whole Union: the single market and the legislation that sets the common rules for that market, trade, research & development programmes, foreign policy, police & justice cooperation, the Erasmus student exchange programme, agriculture, fisheries and so on. Britain will only be on the margins if it marginalises itself.
The area where there is arguably a danger that the eurozone might act as a cohesive caucus within the wider EU is in the field of financial sector regulation. But in this area, the EU has already agreed to have a “double majority” rule, where a majority of both members and non-members of the eurozone is required to agree any new rules.
A false prospectus
Crucially, on the question of immigration, we need these very big changes that I’m putting forward to the welfare system that will require treaty change.
Cameron added some detail on this one:
I think that everyone can understand that under the proposals I have that if someone comes to Britain from Europe looking for a job they don’t get unemployment benefit; if they don’t have a job within six months they have to go home; they have to work for four years before they can claim things like tax credits. Crucially you don’t get child benefit with respect to children that you leave at home with your family in other countries. Those four changes are hugely important.
Once again, Cameron talks about migration in the UKIP style, as if it were an EU phenomenon. In fact, most migrants in Britain are from outside the EU — entirely a matter for national regulation and nothing to do with the European Union at all.
Within the EU, there are roughly the same number of Brits abroad as others here. Those here pay one third more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services. And in terms of eligibility for benefits, let us recall that under current law, an EU migrant arriving in Britain has no immediate right to claim unemployment benefits and must be coming for a job or able to support themselves without being a burden on the Exchequer. If there are any people coming simply to claim benefits, the European Court has just confirmed that they aren’t entitled to receive them. So this is not really as big a problem as it is made out to be.
Where there is abuse of migrants, many of the problems could be dealt with by a UK government that wanted to — by enforcing the minimum wage, dealing with agencies that only advertise abroad and not locally, using the surplus the Treasury gains from migrants to help local authorities with any extra needs resulting from migration, and suchlike.
So Cameron’s entire proposal here would appear to boil down to changing tax credits and child benefits for employed (and therefore tax-paying) migrants. This would save the Exchequer about 0.3% of public expenditure — but risks much greater amounts if his strategy fails.