Wednesday, 16 January 2013

EU renegotiation is not feasible from within

This Friday, the Prime Minister is expected to make a speech setting out his position on returning some decisions from Brussels to Westminster and on holding a referendum on the outcome.

Much of the recent debate that has been provoked by the prospect of this speech has been about whether or not Britain should renegotiate its membership of the EU and, if so, which powers we should seek back.

No attention whatsoever has been paid by mainstream commentators to the methods by which any renegotiation could occur.

Essentially, a phony debate has been conducted, no doubt encouraged by Number 10, about the desirability of renegotiation and not its feasibility. But the PM's evident interest in 'substance' over 'process' in fact highlights the vulnerability of his EU policy.

Because all the potential methods of initiating a discussion with the EU about the balance of powers between Westminster and Brussels - short of informing the EU that the UK is leaving - are highly unlikely to deliver a formal negotiation, nevermind agreement.

The credibility of David Cameron's forthcoming speech, and the likelihood of any referendum, depend entirely on the Prime Minister setting out a feasible method of securing a renegotiation.

Three methods

There are only three methods by which David Cameron can attempt to initiate discussion about a return of powers from the EU to Britain.

1. Use forthcoming negotiations over the proposed EU 'fiscal union' treaty to try to secure UK opt-outs from other areas of the treaty. This is the method David Cameron and other supporters of renegotiation tend to cite. But there are many problems with this strategy.

First, because other member states could easily dismiss any attempt to broaden the negotiations beyond proposed treaty changes, it would involve playing extreme hardball with the EU by refusing the approve changes designed to secure the future of the euro until UK opt-outs were granted. As well as being politically dramatic - a potential tactic that has already been described as 'blackmail' by the German government - this would leave David Cameron open to charges of hypocrisy, since the government has said that it supports greater fiscal union for the eurozone countries in order to reduce the effects of its instability on the UK economy.

It is not credible relative to his position on the eurozone, politically likely nor desirable for Britain's relations with other European countries, for the Prime Minister to threaten to withhold his consent from the new treaty unless agreement is reached on a return of powers to Britain.

2. Invoke Article 48 of the EU treaty, which opens a convoluted process to revise the treaty on a proposal from a member government, the Commission or the European Parliament. But there are many hurdles in this process that the government is unlikely to overcome. Such a proposal must first achieve majority support within the European Council. Then, the proposed amendments must be approved by a Convention drawn from representatives of all the member states governments and their national parliaments, the European Parliament and the Commission. The EU official chairing this body will be responsible for determining the "consensus" opinion of the Convention on the proposed amendments. Formal votes will not be taken. Once this has concluded its deliberations, a conference of representatives of the member countries will decide finally what amendments should be made to the EU treaty.

3. If this fails, the only other option is for a government to invoke
Article 50 of the treaty.
This covers the arrangements for arriving at a new relationship between a member country wishing to leave the EU and the European Council, the body on which the other political heads of state are represented. Given that David Cameron says he does not support Britain leaving the EU this is clearly not an option he would consider viable. But it is the only method by which a significant renegotiation can be guaranteed.

Who will agree?

Prominent figures across Europe have already denounced the idea that Britain should be permitted to renegotiate its membership of the EU.

Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, has said that there cannot be "different forms of membership… There cannot be flexibility on the core conditions. You cannot have a European Union if you end up with 27 different forms of membership."

The Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, has already gone on record as saying to David Cameron: "Please don't expect us to help you wreck or paralyse the EU."

Speaking after December's meeting of the European Council, French President Francois Hollande indicated his opposition to repatriating EU powers, saying: "When a country makes a commitment, generally, it’s for life. So I think the treaties are there to be abided by. And so far I haven’t heard Mr Cameron at a European Council asking to opt out of certain competences ... Europe isn’t a Europe where competences could be withdrawn."

The Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said that, rather than renegotiate, Britain must be asked the fundamental question: "Do you want to remain in the European Union?"

And President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said: "If every member state were able to cherry-pick those parts of existing policies that they most like, and opt out of those they least like, the union in general, and the single market in particular, would soon unravel."

Delay, distraction?

Where, in this, does David Cameron believe lies the support he needs to secure agreement to British

The unfeasibility of renegotiation makes the PM's strategy look far more like delay and distraction than a response to public concerns about the EU's powers.

This Friday, the mainstream media must focus on exposing the feeble foundations of his EU policy. If David Cameron is serious about renegotiation, he must first notify the EU that Britain will leave. 

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