How to interpret the new twist in Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ strategy

Europe’s heads of state or government will try to reach a deal on Britain’s demands for EU reforms at an extraordinary summit of the European Council in February, and use the Council meeting on December 17th for political guidance.

The four areas of demands that were set out in a letter from Prime Minister Cameron to European Council President Donald Tusk concern sovereignty, economic governance, competitiveness and immigration. While there is reason to believe that agreement can be reached on three of the four ‘baskets’ of demands, it is the fourth one, more specifically on immigration, social benefits and free movement of persons, that is causing the biggest headache.

David Cameron has since sharpened his interpretation of this demand, and threatened to campaign for ‘Brexit’ unless other member states agree to provide him with a binding protocol to the EU treaties that introduces an exception to the rules on free movement. This would then allow him to amend national rules so that newly arrived EU workers would only be entitled to in-work benefits after four years of working in the UK.

This demand is highly problematic because it touches upon a fundamental principle of EU law and a cornerstone of both the single market and the concept of EU citizenship: that of prohibiting discrimination on grounds of nationality. Whereas the treaties do provide for temporary derogations from this principle, none of the existing exceptions allows for the kind of structural ‘opt-out’ to the principle of non-discrimination that Cameron is asking for.

Several EU member states, in particular those from Central and Eastern Europe, have voiced strong opposition to treaty change in this direction. When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte expressed disbelief at Cameron’s latest demand, he probably spoke for most of the other governments on this matter. The Netherlands, hitherto fairly sympathetic to British demands, will hold the rotating presidency of the European Council from January 1st.  David Cameron has gamely admitted that "the scale of what we are asking for means we will not resolve this in one go.”

It is almost as though the British Prime Minister has taken his flag to fan the flames of this smouldering issue, but what is his strategy? Arguably, he is trying to make good for the lukewarm reception that met his letter to Tusk at home, when hard-liners claimed that Cameron had merely presented the EU with a tick-box list of easily achievable reforms. His new strategy is to show the British audience, in particular UKIP voters and anti-EU backbenchers, that he has fought for all he’s worth to get the best possible deal for the UK, and not shied away from raising even the thorniest of issues. Cameron is helped in this narrative by other EU leaders’ confirmations that negotiations will be very, very tough. But by being seen to attempt the impossible he will be able to claim that, in the face of stiff opposition from other member states, Britain should retreat to its opening position, which allows it to fight welfare benefits abuses within the limits determined by the European Court of Justice and thereby claim victory on all other demands. Having obtained the best possible deal for the UK’s future relationship to the EU, every pragmatic British voter should then be persuaded to vote to remain in the Union.



Senior Research Fellow and Head of EU Foreign Policy Unit