In January 2013, David Cameron promised that, if a Conservative government was elected in 2015, the UK would hold an in/out referendum on our membership of the European Union. At the same time, he promised that before the referendum he would seek to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
The 2015 general election saw the Conservatives re-elected on the promise that the referendum would be held by the end of 2017. Since then David Cameron has had negotiations with the European Union and its member states to achieve agreement on reforms in the EU before the referendum.
At a European Council summit on the 18 and 19 February David Cameron got agreement from the 27 other EU member states on reforms that will be introduced if the UK votes to remain in the EU in the upcoming referendum. Cameron has also announced the referendum will be on 23 June 2016.
What did David Cameron ask for?
David Cameron sent a letter on 10 November 2015 to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, seeking reforms. In it, he set out four areas for reform and gave proposals on how he believed they could be achieved.
Firstly, in reforming economic governance, Cameron asked for legally binding safeguards to prevent discrimination against countries without the euro currency and to ensure any eurozone decisions cannot be forced on non-eurozone countries, such as funding operations to support the euro currency.
Secondly, Cameron asked for improvements to single market competitiveness through scaling back unnecessary regulation and cutting the burden on businesses, by implementing a single digital market and by pursuing big trade deals.
To address issues of sovereignty, Cameron requested that the commitment to ‘ever closer union’ no longer apply to the UK, and that this be a legally binding change. He also asked for groups of national parliaments to be able to stop unwanted EU laws by introducing a red card system and for the EU to commit to only making laws when it is necessary to do so at an EU rather than national level.
Finally, to tackle immigration concerns, Cameron proposed that immigrants from the EU not be eligible for in-work benefits until they had worked for four years and that the UK would no longer have to give child benefit to workers whose children still lived overseas.
What does the agreement offer?
On 2 February 2016, following a series of negotiations, Donald Tusk published a draft agreement on how the EU would respond to the UK’s requests. David Cameron got a final agreement on the deal from the other 27 EU countries at a European Council summit on 18 and 19 February 2016.
In terms of economic governance, the agreement says that countries cannot be discriminated against for any reason, including their currency. Non-eurozone countries will be allowed to request a Council meeting to discuss euro currency related proposals, if there are concerns changes might negatively impact their countries. However, these countries cannot veto or delay urgent eurozone decisions. The UK will not have to adopt eurozone decisions or help fund operations to support the euro currency.
A European Council declaration sets out the EU’s commitment to increase efforts to enhance competitiveness. The EU will agree to regularly asses the process of simplifying and reducing the burden of EU laws on businesses.
In terms of sovereignty, the UK has been offered a binding agreement that recognises the UK is not committed to more political integration. In addition, a system will be introduced that means that if 55% of EU countries’ national parliaments vote against a future EU law it will be blocked. They can only vote to block laws on the grounds of subsidiarity, arguing the laws being passed could be made more effectively at a national, rather than EU, level.
As for immigration reform, a new system means that countries whose welfare systems are suffering from excessive immigration can, if approved by the European Council, introduce an emergency brake. This means that countries do not have to immediately start paying in work benefits to EU migrants, but can phase them in over four years. The emergency break will apply in the UK for seven years if there is a vote to remain in the EU. benefits sent to children elsewhere in the EU will also only be paid at a level linked to the cost of living in the country where the child lives. These changes will apply to new migrants to the UK as soon as the measures are approved following a vote for the UK to remain and to all current EU migrants from 2020.
What happens next?
Following the agreement on these new reforms, David Cameron has announced his intention to hold the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union on 23 June 2016. Until then campaigns to remain in and leave the EU will continue to put forward arguments to try and persuade the British public to vote with them.