The publication of British prime minister David Cameron's letter to European Council president Donald Tusk opens a critical phase in Britain's attempt to renegotiate its relationship with the European Union.
Almost three years since Cameron’s “Bloomberg” speech, in which he announced plans to hold a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017, very little has been achieved in the renegotiation process.
While Cameron could correctly argue that he was precluded from launching negotiations while in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party's decisive victory in May's general election put the EU referendum beyond doubt. It was also the moment that politicians in Brussels and across Europe finally woke up to the threat of a British exit.
In the six months since the general election some progress on a diplomatic level has been made. Within days of the publication of the referendum Bill in late May, Cameron embarked on a two-day tour of Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and The Hague. This was followed by visits by chancellor George Osborne in late July, with Cameron pursuing further visits in September, as well as hosting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
In parallel, exploratory talks at a technical level have been taking place between Britain’s senior representatives in Brussels and officials from the commission and council.
But the lack of clarity from Britain about its precise demands has frustrated other member states, leading to last month’s ultimatum by the European Council that Cameron set out his demands in writing by early November.
The publication of the six-page letter, though still minimalist in terms of detail, signals the start of the negotiation process proper.
Under the management of Tusk, discussions will now commence between the European Council and the senior adviser to each of the 27 EU leaders in a process that is likely to last about two weeks. In parallel, political engagement between the prime minister, Osborne and other EU leaders is expected to continue.
Despite a heavy agenda at December’s EU summit on the 17th and 18th, including a discussion of the renewal of Russian sanctions, the December council is expected to be dominated by the British issue, though a further extraordinary summit on the British renegotiation could be scheduled for January and February.
So far the EU reaction to Cameron’s speech and letter to Tusk has been far from auspicious. The European Commission’s chief spokesman said yesterday that some of Cameron’s proposals were “highly problematic” as they touch upon the “fundamental freedoms” of the internal market. He added that Britain’s proposals on restricting benefits to migrants from other EU nations were akin to “direct discrimination”.
Despite this lukewarm response, the role of the commission in the renegotiation process is likely to be limited as the negotiating power shifts to Tusk and the European Council. It will be the stance of the EU member states, not the European Commission and Parliament, that will decide the outcome of the renegotiation process.
Already a number of capitals have responded to the letter. Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka said that any changes to free movement in the EU would cause a "very serious problem" for the Czech Republic, noting that the right to live and work anywhere in the EU "is absolutely fundamental".
But his suggestion that he could support measures to improve regulation and co-operation between euro and non-euro members is indicative of the common ground Cameron may find with other, particularly non-euro zone, members.
Merkel, who spoke to Cameron on Monday and is likely to hold the key to the EU response to his demands, struck an optimistic note, pledging to respond in a “constructive spirit”.
How far Britain’s EU partners are prepared to go to accommodate Britain’s proposals without demanding concessions of their own will be the key question in the coming weeks.