Brexit? UK in EU? Where will EU-Cameron deal lead us?

After long negotiations in Brussel a deal was struck between EU leaders and PM David Cameron about Britain’s new settlement with the European Union.

PM David Cameron says EU in-out referendum will be held on Thursday 23rd June. Credit: gov.uk

PM David Cameron says EU in-out referendum will be held on Thursday 23rd June. Credit: gov.uk

Questions:

1. What does it mean for the EU, does it make the EU stronger? Weaker maybe?

2. Could the agreement be a good basis for successful referendum, for PM Cameron successfully campaigning for staying in the EU?

Answers:

Benjamin LeruthResearch Associate, University of Kent

1. It does not make the European Union weaker, but it would also be wrong to say it makes it stronger. Ever since the United Kingdom joined the European community in 1973, the country’s status has been somewhat special. The membership terms were renegotiated in 1975, and approved by 67% of the voters. Throughout the 1990s, the United Kingdom, jointly with other member states (Denmark, Ireland, Sweden,…) successfully sought opt-outs from key EU policies. Technically, the notion of “ever closer Union” has never applied to the United Kingdom. Instead, I believe we are in the age of an “ever more differentiated Union”, which does not necessarily make the Union weaker.

The concept of “ever more differentiated Union” (in contrast to “ever closer Union”) means that the European Union acknowledges that the political and/or socio-economic circumstances of some countries should be taken in consideration in order to co-operate efficiently within the EU institutions. By allowing some flexibility, it has the potential of making the EU decision-making process smoother as some countries facing exceptional circumstances are less likely to veto key legislative proposals. As long there is as a good balance between the country’s needs and the European Union’s fundamental principles, differentiation can avoid political deadlock as it did in the early 1990s in the context of the Maastricht Treaty ratification. Some aspects of the European integration project might not fit all 28 member states, especially in countries with a strong Eurosceptic tradition such as the United Kingdom. In addition, from a purely political perspective, acknowledging exceptional differences between countries (at it is the case for the United Kingdom, but also for Denmark, Sweden,…) also has the potential to fight against the so-called EU democratic deficit.

2. It is definitely a better agreement that the initial one presented by Donald Tusk earlier this month. The time frame for the emergency brake on welfare benefits for EU migrants is quite generous (7 years), and the United Kingdom maintained its influence in the European Union by obtaining another type of emergency brake on banking union legislation. The mostly symbolic issue of opting out from the “ever closer Union” was also granted and will be included in the Treaties, in order to emphasise the UK’s exceptionalism.

However, it does not mean that the Remain campaign will have an easy task. Donald Tusk’s initial proposal was heavily criticised by Eurosceptics and many observers. The fact that the final agreement is more ambitious than the original proposal will not necessarily be sufficient to convince the 15% of undecided voters. Both Remain and Leave campaigns will be tough to run, but David Cameron presented the agreement as the best deal possible for the United Kingdom. If all Eurosceptics  are able to unite under a common banner, they might give a hard time to Europhiles and David Cameron during the referendum campaign.

Christian Schweiger, Senior Lecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

1. In my view the concessions that the EU-27 has granted the UK risks ultimately to weaken the EU in the future. The main reason for this is that there is the risk that other sceptical member states who currently are outside the eurozone (such as for example the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland but also Sweden or Denmark) may make similar demands for permanent opt outs from the eurozone, the freedom of movement, Schengen and also deeper political integration. If this was the case we would witness a permanent division between the euro core and the outside periphery. One could argue that this is sensible given the differences of national interests and maybe it is the only way forward for the EU but such a division would certainly weaken the EU. If some countries are no longer commited to freedom of movement, which is the core principle of the Single Market, one has to ask what future the Single Market actually has and if it can still be classified as a unified ‘Single’ Market. Moreover, under the conditions of the refugee crisis, which is likely to worsen this spring/summer, it looks realistic that particularly the CEE euro outsiders may demand a permanent opt out from Schengen and maybe also try to renegotiate on other issues, such as the exemption from having to eventually join the euro. Equally it is possible that some of them and also others amongst the EU-15 (again Sweden, Denmark but even France under the leadership of president Le Pen in 2017) could decide to follow the British example and hold referenda on their EU membership. To sum it up, overall I think that this renegotiation of the British membership terms risks having opened pandora’s box of the EU’s disintegration, especially if eurosceptic forces gain greater influence in other countries.

2. Cameron may be able to convince the British public to stay in the EU on the basis of the deal on the basis that it determines clear red lines against deeper political integration.

I would think that overall Cameron will struggle to get the public interested in the details of the deal. It is more likely that the referendum campaign will be dominated by the refugee crisis and I fear that UKIP, the hardline eurosceptics in the Conservative Party and the eurosceptic print media will try to convince the public that the only way to control migration is to leave the EU. Nigel Farage has already started to argue that the only way to guarantee that the UK will not have to accept binding EU refugee quotas and keep the sovereign control over its borders is to leave. The British public overall knows very little about how the EU works, much less than in most other member states. It is therefore very easy to manipulate public opinion by putting forward simplifications and half-truths. If eurosceptics keep making the point that staying in the EU would mean more immigration coming to the UK it will be very hard for Cameron and the ‘in’ campaign to make themselves heard and to convince the public that this is not case. The crucial point in this respect is that the UK continues to display an island mentality and considers the European continent as a rather distant foreign region. Especially the English public (less so Scotland or Wales) therefore prioritises national sovereignty and full control over national borders over anything else, including the benefits of economic cooperation in the EU. Migration is therefore a contentious issue which will become a major issue in the referendum campaign. If the refugee crisis peaks in the summer in the run-up to the referendum I would expect that we will see a surge towards support for Brexit amongst English voters. An additional complication in this respect is that Brexit on the basis of predominantly English votes will almost certainly lead to demands for a second Scottish independence referendum which is then likely to result in a majority for independence. Cameron therefore not only has to fear a Brexit vote but a subsequent breakup of the UK.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

1. Its impact on the EU is minimal, given the number of limitations and the ability of other member states to use the provisions. However, there is still the danger that this whole episode encourages other member states to do the same kind of thing, which can only weaken the union over time.

2. Having a deal makes it much more likely Cameron will win the referendum. Assuming most people don’t understand the fine detail of the argument, it will be enough that he has been able to win some concessions, which then allow him to say he thinks it’s good for the UK to stay in the EU. But it doesn’t mean he should be complacent, since the Leave camp will fight this very hard.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

1. a) However, in a bigger picture I am confident that the concessions given to the UK will not weaken the EU to the same extent as a Brexit would do. Also, in one sense the changes are rather limited since no new treaty will have to be negotiated in order to implement the agreement.

Thus, as long as Mr Cameron – although mainly out of self-interest because of his complicated relationship with the Eurosceptics in his own party – are put in a position from which he may be able to win the referendum, it makes sense to his EU partners to give concessions on several of his demands. Seen from a tactical point of view, the EU are right to conclude a deal that the British PM can sell as a ‘reformed EU’ which in a better way will safeguard British interests.

b) The concessions given to the UK are on the one hand policies that other countries also appreciate, as for instance the Nordic EU members, which, like Britain, would like to index welfare benefits paid to people living in another country, i.e. that the welfare payments should reflect the price level in the country where the recipient lives. Yet this looks very different, as you will know, in countries with a lower price level.

The same applies to the right to work in other countries, which is important to the Visegrad countries and certainly other Central/Eastern European countries, and equally interesting to the richest countries which in some respects would like to limit the in-work benefits for migrant workers.

The third difficult point is that France and other countries do not want to limit/curb their possibilities to deepen their economic and monetary cooperation. On this point there is a tension between France on the one hand, and Britain and the financial industry mainly in London.

2. a) The short answer is that I believe the agreement is a good basis for a successful referendum. The PM can argue that welfare payments to people living in other countries will be reduced, that people coming to Britain will have to stay longer before they can claim in-work benefits, and he can claim that the financial industry are better off after the agreement.

Yet there are many unknowns in this equation. Who will campaign for staying and who will campaign for leaving? As many commentators have pointed to, Boris Johnson might be a joker in this respect. However, even if Mr Johnson should decide to join the leave campaign, I still believe that Cameron stands good chances to win his campaign to stay.

b) Another risk for Mr Cameron is that a serious incident should take place – as for example a terrorist attack, a serious economic shock or a new big wave of immigrant coming to Europe leaving the impression that it will somehow threaten the UK.

(This is a general risk with referendums as such. The result might reflect answers to other challenges than is put on the ballot paper, fear of terrorism, an increasingly unpopular government etc.)

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