EU leaders seek to aid Cameron though main Brexit sticking point still looms large
PM has no support on welfare demand, which is seen as discriminatory and contrary to free movement
The European Union’s future relations with the United Kingdom have been fully prepared for intensive negotiation over the next two months by its summit in Brussels.
This discussion at the highest political level gave a largely sympathetic hearing to prime minister David Cameron and signalled the difficult outstanding issues on welfare rights, the eurozone and treaty change. The summit’s larger agenda on migration, terrorism, the internal market, the energy union and external relations shows how much the UK has to gain from and contribute to the EU as it decides whether to remain a member.
The most important sticking point is Mr Cameron’s proposal that migrant workers from other EU member-states would have to wait four years before availing of in-work benefits. He has no support on this demand, which is rightly seen as discriminatory and contrary to free movement within the single market.
At official level several alternative approaches have been floated, the best of which can be applied universally. On this and the UK’s relations with the eurozone, the role of national parliaments and competitiveness, it should be possible to frame solutions that genuinely reform the EU, thereby allowing Mr Cameron to claim a victory to his home audience.
Understanding that political dynamic, other leaders at this summit were prepared to help fashion such a beneficial outcome. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was prominent among them. He clarified how the UK’s prime minister is not demanding an instant treaty change but can accept a protocol with the same legal effect, as Ireland received on the Lisbon Treaty.
Mr Cameron has narrowed down the major issues on which he wants reform this autumn, so much so that Eurosceptic critics in his Conservative party and outside it say he is demanding too little.
If he is able to show substantial change with widespread support from other European states he will be in a much better position to argue the real case for the UK staying in the EU. That needs to combine a hard-nosed calculation of national economic interests with a more emotional and existential argument about its future leading role as a European power and its own very survival as a united state given Scotland’s likely path to independence should a “Brexit” happen.
A well-informed analysis of this summit’s agenda should conclude that the UK has more to gain than lose from the EU. It has an opt out from existing border controls but would benefit by acting together on handling migration and terrorism.
The internal market and the proposed energy and capital markets unions are similarly beneficial. In external relations it shares most interests. And new eurozone rules will clarify and protect it against caucusing as a non-member. Mr Cameron should grasp this opportunity, conclude these talks and then turn them to his advantage.