The EU needs to change, argues Prime Minister David Cameron. After his recent election victory, the UK will now strive to negotiate a new settlement with the EU, and call for a referendum offering Britain the simple choice of staying in on new terms, or leaving the EU altogether. Even if Cameron’s policies have so far received a lukewarm reception from other EU leaders, the EU now has to decide how to respond to the aspirations of one of its major member states. What drives Cameron’s EU agenda? How are the other political actors and interest groups likely to align themselves in the run up to the referendum? And to what extent fellow EU leaders are willing and able to accommodate UK demands?
Teija Tiilikainen, the director of FIIA, opened the seminar by emphasising how important it is to reflect on the impact of the British referendum on the future of the EU. She also pointed to the speculation that a ”Brexit” might lead to increased integration among those member states that choose to stay in the EU.
In her remarks, professor Cini underlined that the debate in the UK has changed enormously regarding the EU during the last few weeks. The outcome of the British general election was a surprise for all involved. The result sparked an immediate debate in the UK on EU. This is now among the top issues in the UK media.
Professor Cini made two observations about the result of the elections. First of all the British electoral system, with its first past the post arrangement, has come under discussion. This is due to its impact on proportionality and the form of democracy in Britain. The second issue is the discrediting of the polling organisations. They are now facing a lack of credibility due their ability to actually predict the election results. According to professor Cini the critique should also be aimed at media outlets that trusted the polls to an exaggerated extent.
So far there is a lot of uncertainty as to the future of the referendum. The referendum date has now been announced and there also seems to be a ready wording of the question to be decided. The ”yes-campaign” will be for staying in the European Union.
Currently there is also uncertainty regarding who shall be eligible to vote in the referendum. There are still open questions as to what the voting age will be in the referendum and whether EU citizens living in the UK should be allowed to vote. It should also be taken into consideration that the Scottish National Party has argued that all four nations would have to vote no for a British exit to take place.
The question of timing of the referendum is also crucial. It seems that David Cameron wants to bring the referendum forward quickly. So far there has been speculation of it being held in May 2016 or the autumn of 2016.
According to professor Cini the hard part for the British government is that at the same time with the preparation of the referendum, the treaty renegotiations on the UK’s place in the EU should take place. Several prominent think tanks in the UK, such as Open Europe, have promoted the idea of 2016 being the year of reform for the EU. However the timing of the referendum still remains uncertain.
Professor Cini argued that it is likely that in the run up to the referendum all the parties in Britain – with the exception of UKIP – will have a more or less pro-EU agenda. However some division remains within the parties themselves. This is especially acute for the Conservatives, since David Cameron will have to manage maintaining the support of the party base while making the argument for continued EU membership.
It is still an open question – what exactly will be renegotiated. The think tank Open Europe has identified a number of key issues were renegotiation is more likely. It remains to be seen how feasible these are. One of the proposals is the so called red card of national parliaments that could be used to have the European Commission take certain issues of their agenda.
According to professor Cini there is at the moment a rallying of both pro- and anti-European groups in the UK. There is a lot of discussion on how the arguments for the referendum will be formed. At the moment the pro-EU argument is formed quite often in economic terms. The latest public opinion polls before the election point to around 40% support both for continued membership and the British Exit. However in case there will be a treaty renegotiation, support of British EU membership is likely to be higher.
Professor Brigid Laffan considered both the potential Brexit and Grexit to be historically very significant watershed moments for the European Union and its future. Both of these events have the potential to generate a lot of unpredictable spillover effects for the EU and its members.
Professor Laffan described the current dynamic in the EU as a transition from multilevel governance to multilevel politics where developments in one country have important implications for developments in other member states. She called this phenomenon the revenge of the domestic.
At the moment there are historically high levels of volatility in the EU politics. There is also a high level of change in parties – for example in Greece the social democratic PASOK is unlikely to ever regain the prominence it once had. There has already been the first round of crisis elections and there are still more to come.
With regard to Britain, professor Laffan considered that the Conservative victory was actually the best outcome for the UK’s EU membership. If the Conservatives had lost, the issue could not have been settled and it would have troubled British politics for a long time to come. If Britain has to have the debate about EU membership then it is better that it is David Cameron who has to weather the storm.
The EU referendum came to the agenda in Britain because of the euro crisis. Regarding Grexit, professor Laffan thought that the acute phase of the euro crisis is over but the crisis as such is not. In Greece the Syriza government is internally fragmented and according to Laffan, Syriza has a poor understanding of the realities of governance.
In professor Laffan’s view Syriza is doing a lot of political posturing. They assumed that there was an anti-austerity coalition available in Europe, which has not appeared to be the case. The EU system has a difficult decision to make. Will it want Greece to stay in the Eurozone, and what to do with Syriza? According to her there are three dilemmas in this respect. Firstly, can Greece prosper as a member of the Eurozone? Secondly, the 2010 bail-out deal was too frontloaded and the following adjustment has caused a lot of problems. Thirdly, Greece itself will have to find a way out of the current crisis.
It is still an open question how the other member states tackle this issue. According to professor Laffan the negotiations with the Syriza government are not particularly good. If Greece can be kept in the EMU, that is the least bad option.
Regarding the consequences of a Brexit, professor Laffan believed that the UK would break up as a consequence, and lose its voice in the EU while remaining affected by it.
Of other large member states, France is willing to keep the UK inside the EU to counterbalance Germany. According to professor Laffan, the UK is promoting free trade inside of the EU which means that its membership would also benefit the Nordic states.
Lastly, professor Laffan emphasised the importance of European elites having a serious dialogue with European citizens on the future of the EU.
Professor Christian Lequesne emphasised two points in his remarks. Firstly, on the EU level he agreed with the analysis on the revenge of the domestic politics. This in turn pointed to the increased need to be aware of the policy priorities of the different capitals of the European Union.
Secondly, the differences of the potential directions of the EU will have to be taken into account. So far there has mainly been an emphasis on the potential for different forms of integration but now the possibility of disintegration should also be considered. For example, in France this possibility is already taken seriously although most French politicians want the UK to remain in the EU. This is especially due to the balance of power within the union and the UK-France defence relations. The classic French parties are defending the UK membership but new extreme parties – especially Le Front National – are siding with Eurosceptic parties such as UKIP.
The crucial question is, what would it mean for Cameron to win the referendum on the EU membership? According to professor Lequesne, the current position in France is that every effort should be taken to avoid treaty change. This is largely due to the experiences of the 2005 Lisbon negotiations. President Holland is not willing to risk a referendum. Formerly Paris was worried about what position Germany would take on the treaty change but this debate is now over.
The debate in France is now focused on what can be negotiated with the British without changing the treaties. The so called red card proposal goes in this direction. There could also be a removal of the statement on the ”ever closer union” from the EU framework.
Also crucial with respect to Britain is the issue of migrants and the UK’s relationship with Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland.
According to professor Lequesne the next two years will see the efforts by the political elites of both countries to negotiate about what can be done without treaty change. The French political elites are in favour of finding solutions to the current problems. It should be noted however that in recent polls 66 % of French people said that the UK should be able to leave the EU if it wishes.
Dr. Allan Rosas from the European Court of Justice offered the legal perspective on the British referendum on the EU membership. He made four points that should be taken into account when discussing the potential of UK treaty change. Firstly the status of UK inside the EU should be established. There are already some opt outs for example from the euro – with Britain being one of them. Britain is also outside the Schengen area and the area of freedom and security that falls under the justice and home affairs. It should be noted that UK is not the only one with opt outs from EU treaties – Denmark would be another example.
The second point made by Dr. Rosas concerned the question of – what would it mean to reform the EU. He pointed out that within the current timeframe the reform would be difficult. However even in such a short time there could be an agreement on a future treaty change. There could also be a change to the accession period of new member states of the EU. This period could be made longer without a treaty change. There could also be chances to the role of the parliament and the strengthening of the internal market. As to the restrictions of the so called ”welfare tourism” there could be some limitations for welfare provisions. This would however be a great deal more difficult when concerning workers.
The third remark by Dr. Allan Rosas concerned the article 50 of the Lisbon treaty which gives any member state the right to withdraw from the EU. This is possible within a time frame of two years from the initiation of the procedure.
Finally Dr. Rosas looked into the options that a country potentially leaving the Union would have. Leaving the EU would have implications for both tariffs and visas but you could still have some arrangement for the future of the relationship. There are several different options in this regard – the EEA model, the Norwegian model and several other ones as well. However these potential arrangements might not be attractive to the UK since they would mean that the EU treaties would still have an impact on the country but it would have no say in their content.