The EU deal to avoid Brexit

With its all-night negotiations, ‘war room’ of lawyers, heated private consultations and snippets of news delivered to an eagerly waiting press corps, left to muse over the ‘English’ menu throughout  the course of the day, the European Council meeting of February 28-29th had all the theatrical trappings of a make-or-break summit. Beyond the drama, however, what became clear was the fundamental desire on the part of the leaders of all 28 EU member states to agree a deal on the British government’s demands for a renegotiated settlement on the UK’s specific status within the European Union.

As much as certain European leaders may have resented Prime Minister Cameron for the tactical blackmail he deployed to push through mostly technical reforms, which were either not a priority for them or ran counter to their interests, no one wanted to see the summit fail or fan the flames of Brexit. At the same time, the heads of state or government were keen to ensure that the UK would not be allowed to reopen talks in the event of a ‘leave’ vote in the British referendum, an idea embraced by Mr Cameron to kill the idea of a ‘neverendum’. And so they joined together in a move to adopt a ‘self-destruct’ clause in the deal:

It is understood that, should the result of the referendum in the United Kingdom be for it to leave the European Union, the set of arrangements referred to in paragraph 2 above [i.e. the Decision and flanking statement and declarations] will cease to exist.

Whilst it is highly unlikely that the referendum on whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU will be decided on the minutiae of any reform to child benefits or tax credits, the deal is nonetheless important, for at least four reasons. First, it has provided Mr Cameron with the political capital he needed from his fellow European leaders to call a date for the in/out referendum and to lead a campaign for the UK to stay in the European Union.

Second, it marks a watershed acknowledgement that EU integration is not a one-directional process of ‘ever closer union’ but that “different paths of integration [are] available [that] do not compel all member states to aim for a common destination”. It will effectively lead to a legally binding recognition that the UK is not committed to further political integration in the EU.

Third, it lays down commitments to change secondary EU legislation, for instance on the free movement of workers and the coordination of social security systems, and to incorporate the substance of parts of the deal into the EU treaties at the time of their next revision.

Finally, the deal has set a precedent in which one member state successfully held the rest of the EU to ransom until its demands were met. As Euroscepticism grows throughout the Union, there is a risk of contagion: (future) leaders of other member states could refer to the UK deal and threaten to steer their own countries out of the Union (‘Frexit', ‘Plexit', etc.) if their specific status within the EU is not secured. The ‘self-destruct' clause inserted into the deal at the last minute will not deter copycat exception-seekers because the genie has now been let out of the bottle.


For further reading, see S. Weiss and S. Blockmans, “The EU Deal to Avoid Brexit: Take it or leave”, CEPS Special Report No. 131, February 2016, and Michael Emerson, Britain’s Future in Europe: The known Plan A to remain or the known Plan B to leave, 2nd edition, CEPS-RLI Paperback (forthcoming).

Senior Research Fellow and Head of EU Foreign Policy Unit