By Daria Berstell
The United Kingdom’s future membership in the European Union has, in recent years, come into question, with “Brexit” – Britain leaving the EU, becoming increasingly probable. In 2013, in a bid to appease the Euro-skeptics in the UK, David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, promised that if his party was reelected, he would renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership in the EU and hold a referendum regarding the UK’s continued membership in the EU by 2018. The referendum is expected to be held in June or July of 2017 assuming a deal is reached by the EU Summit in February 2017. Since the Tory’s reelection in 2015, Cameron has been working to renegotiate the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU. Cameron laid out his main objectives in a letter to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council in November of 2015. Cameron’s main objectives in his negotiations are protecting the single market, competitiveness, immigration, and sovereignty.
Regarding economic governance Cameron is lobbying for recognition of multiple currencies within the European Union in an effort to safeguard the UK’s use of the pound, to protect the single market, and to prevent the UK from being forced to use the euro or assist in bailing out eurozone countries. Cameron also hopes to increase competitiveness by reducing excessive regulations. In addition, in response to the high levels of immigration that Britain experiences as well as the recent rise in refugees seeking asylum in Europe, Cameron hopes to restrict welfare payments to EU migrants until those individuals have been a UK resident for at least four years. Finally, Cameron is also negotiating to allow Britain to be exempt from forming an “ever closer union” with the rest of Europe, in a bid to resist further political integration, opting out of one of the founding goals of the European Union.
Cameron’s negotiations to reduce regulations on the UK come on the heels of the Conservatives lobbying to free businesses from interference and to remove trade barriers on the service and digital sectors. The Tory’s goals are the creation of a true single market, however, one with protections for the City of London, the UK’s trading and financial industries. While Cameron’s goals include limiting welfare payments to workers who have recently arrived in the UK, he and his party do support the enlargement of the European Union, as long as there are restrictions in place to prevent unlimited travel within Europe. The overarching goal of Cameron’s EU negotiations is to reclaim some of the power that the EU has over UK law. Cameron’s party is also planning to attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act which requires the UK to use the European Court of Human Rights as legal precedent rather than the British Bill of Rights. Cameron has stated that if necessary he would support a law to assert the power of the UK Parliament over that of the EU. The overall angle of the reforms involves divesting power away from Brussels and back to London.
Cameron’s negotiations to prevent recent migrants to the UK from receiving welfare payments and social support is mostly aimed at decreasing the amount of EU nationals who move to the UK seeking work. In addition to delaying benefits for recent migrants, Cameron is also lobbying to restrict migrants from receiving child benefits for dependents who do not reside in the UK, removing individuals from the UK if they have not found work within six months, speeding up deportation of criminals, and restricting entry for citizens from newly joined EU countries for a period. These restrictions all affect freedom of movement within the EU, one of the founding principles of the EU. The changes the Prime Minister is seeking, if they succeed, would dramatically change the EU’s principles.
Freedom of movement also plays a key role in how the EU is meant to work as a single market. Freedom of movement is enshrined in EU treaties, however, with recent influxes of migrants to the UK, both from Eastern European countries as well as due to the Syrian civil war, the Tories are looking for ways to bypass the basic freedom of movement within the EU while still holding back welfare payments from recent migrants. This issue has received pushback from some EU leaders and nations such as Hungary and Poland who see those changes as discriminatory towards their nationals, many of whom migrate to the UK for work. While David Cameron is working to negotiate a new deal for the UK within the EU, some members of his party want more aggressive changes; such as allowing the UK to “opt-out” of some EU laws or simply for the UK to leave the EU entirely, no matter what the results of Cameron’s negotiations. With such massive pressures, securing greater freedom within the EU is one of the few compromises the Tories can offer to placate Euro-skeptic parts of the country.
On February 2nd, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, circulated a letter to the 28 EU member states regarding his proposal for a new settlement for the UK. This new deal falls short of the “fundamental reform” that Cameron originally promised his party he would accomplish. The four year freeze on benefits to new migrants has now become a four year phased introduction of benefits. The emphasis has moved to the phased in benefits rather than the curbing of migration that Cameron had originally promised his party’s MPs. Cameron will have to continue to fight for concessions ahead of the summit in February if he is to maintain the support of the many Euro-skeptics in his party.
For Cameron to secure the deal ahead of the EU summit in February, he will have to convince the countries of Eastern Europe to agree to the deal, and he must also convince his own party that his deal is a true victory for Britain. For many leaders in Eastern Europe, Cameron’s proposals, which would severely limit benefits available to recent migrants to the UK, are seen as a direct attack on their nation’s nationals, especially in countries such as Hungary and Poland. Several days after Cameron’s proposals were published, Cameron traveled to Poland in a bid to convince the Polish leadership to support his negotiations. While Cameron needs a dramatic victory to appease his party at home, the Polish government needs to show calm but strong resistance to the deal to appease the Polish public. Cameron will continue to lobby for his deal, while negotiations will continue concerning freedom of movement for EU nationals and the UK. Whether the UK can convince its partners to accept its deal will determine its future relations with the continent.