What did we learn from last night’s European Council meeting?

By Daniel Kenealy

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It had been built up over the course of the week. David Cameron went to a European Council meeting in Brussels ready to battle ‘through the night’ for the UK’s interests. This of course in the context of his attempt to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the EU ahead of a planned referendum before the end of 2017 (and preferably as soon as possible).

Just as a refresher Mr Cameron is seeking changes under four broad headings: (1) Economic Governance, essentially seeking safeguards for non-Eurozone member states against any potential Eurozone caucus in the Council; (2) Competitiveness, essentially reducing EU red tape and regulations and further developing the single market especially in services; (3) Sovereignty, involving an end to the UK’s obligation to work towards ‘Ever Closer Union’, a strengthening of the role of national parliaments in EU decision-making and a strengthened subsidiarity provisions; and (4) Immigration, involving a proposed ban on EU migrant workers accessing in-work benefits in the UK until they have lived, worked and paid taxes in the UK for four years. (For a full description read Mr Cameron’s letter to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, of 10 November).

Of course the meeting was closed-door and the best we can do is read between the lines of various post-meeting statements and press conferences and pick up bits-and-pieces from those closer to the negotiations. The official Council conclusion offers nothing of substance. A few observations however.

First, the tone of yesterday evening was apparently conciliatory, productive, and further clarified what EU leaders will and will not accept. Some in the Brussels bubble have read the Council conclusion, and specifically the commitment to ‘work closely together to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all four areas’ as somehow an improvement on Tusk’s letter to the European Council of 7 December, in which it was stated that the fourth area (immigration) was the most troublesome. That’s reading far too much into things. Tusk’s letter, read in full, stated:

While we see good prospects for agreeing on ways to fight abuses and possibly on some reforms related to the export of child benefits, there is presently no consensus on the request that people coming to Britain from the EU must live there and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing. This is certainly an issue where we need to hear more from the British Prime Minister and an open debate among ourselves before proceeding further.

People close to the negotiations have told me that this remains an accurate assessment of the current state of play. What did become clearer last night, through the post-meeting briefings, press conferences, and statements was that the fundamental principles underpinning the EU will not be altered. It was, implicitly, a statement by EU leaders that whilst they all want to keep the UK in the EU there are clear limits on what they are prepared to sacrifice to reach that goal.

Second, numerous questions remain about precisely what it is Mr Cameron wants in all four areas of renegotiation. Speaking to people at the Foreign Office (admittedly not the department at the centre of these negotiations) elicits little insight into how Mr Cameron might put flesh on the bones of his skeleton of demands. I’ll return to that in future blog posts. But between now and February numerous questions remain about what is being sought in the areas of Economic Governance, Competitiveness and Sovereignty.

Third, migration remains the thorniest issue of all. Anything that is directly discriminatory against people working in the UK from other EU member states is clearly not acceptable to a majority of Mr Cameron’s fellow leaders. That means that Mr Cameron will have to dilute his ‘four year ban’ demand, a demand which is already a step down from earlier suggestions of a cap on the numbers of EU migrants allowed to come to the UK to work. Potential Plan B’s are now being intensely discussed, the most realistic of which are: (a) the possibility of discriminating indirectly through residency requirements; (b) introducing an emergency brake on EU migration that would be triggered by a collective decision of EU member states; and (c) changes that would see migrant workers in the UK receiving, for a period of time, the level of benefits they might expect to receive if they were in their home country but still paid for by the UK. All of them have their own problems.

Fourth, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear post-meeting last night that changing the EU Treaties is not off the table but that this will not be accomplished before a UK referendum. She said:

If we need Treaty change, and I believe that could be the case, then we all understand that this does not have to take place now, but as per the British proposal it could take place later at the next available opportunity … However, we need to see it as a Treaty change that we deposit for the future, [not] as one that we have to agree now.

We already knew that of course. UK government ministers and spokespeople seem to have accepted that the UK’s requests would require Treaty changes. That raises a tricky problem. It suggests that any agreed changes that require Treaty change will have to be post-dated and enshrined, in the meantime, in an agreement similar in status to the so-called Edinburgh Agreement signed with Denmark in 1992, which was binding as an international agreement. Whilst this might tick a legal box it raises a political problem for Mr Cameron who has to sell this deal to UK voters.

To conclude, the calculation thus remains, today, the same as it has been for months now. EU member states are faced with a choice between: (a) a somewhat messier EU, with new ad-hoc rules and procedures tacked on and to be incorporated into the Treaties at some future date; and (b) the EU that they currently have but at the risk of Brexit. That should be a fairly easy decision for them to make. But this is not a typical backroom Brussels negotiation that runs late in to the night before everyone emerges claiming victory with a heavy dose of spin. The deal reached on this occasion will have to pass the ‘Bullshit-o-meter’ of the British public. Mr Cameron has made a tactical mistake by placing so much emphasis on the one requirement – the four year ban – that any right-thinking person could always see was unattainable.

Increasingly it is starting to seem that whilst agreement will technically be reached – by which I mean something will be done in each of the four areas – that deal will: (a) be watered down from the UK’s original demands; (b) underwhelm UK voters who are eurosceptic or undecided in the area that has become the most resonant, namely immigration; and (c) be post-dated and thus more complicated to explain to the electorate. Let’s be very clear about this, Mr Cameron’s biggest challenge isn’t reaching a deal in Brussels, it’s selling that deal to older voters and more working class voters in places like Yorkshire, the Midlands and the South East.

From winning an unexpected majority in May 2015 Mr Cameron may still become a prime minister whose legacy is a blundered referendum that saw the UK walk away from the EU, followed by the break up of the union itself as Scotland is forced to choose between one union (with England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and another (with its 27 EU partners).


Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and co-editor of The European Union: How Does it Work? 4th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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