One of the most puzzling questions in the referendum/re-negotiation debate in the UK is what the British actually want to “re-negotiate” (it’s questionable whether there will be any opportunity to do it – but this is another story). Anyway, so far we’ve had to do quite a bit of guesswork to answer this question. A couple of weeks ago, openeurope (the think tank/advocacy group that is pretty close to the Conservative EU policy agenda – to say the least) published a survey that found that most people support Cameron’s re-negotiation strategy. It also included a very interesting list of re-negotiation priorities. Or to put it more accurately: 14 policy areas (pre-formulated by openeurope) were ranked by survey respondents. It would have been interesting to see what an “open question” would have produced in this context. Now I am sure Downing Street does this sort of polling as well – or, what is more likely, use some of the results of this survey. Anyway it is quite a safe bet that all these issues are the areas in which the UK will try to do “something” – and William Hague’s “red card” proposal a few weeks ago was already part of it!
Before I discuss the top 4 priorities (or everything over 30% approval) in more detail it is interesting to note two issues that explain the findings: First of all the ranking confirms the low level of EU knowledge among people: policy areas with exclusive EU competence and/or EU policy areas where you could bring back powers (in theory at least) tend to be at the bottom of the list: regional policy, agriculture, fisheries. And secondly: the top priorities for re- negotiation are exactly the topics that correspond with the eurosceptic agenda and the discourse in the media: immigration, EU budget and overall costs. (with some outliers)
A methodological note: Formulating statements in surveys is always a bit tricky. However, it seems to me that the phrase “allowing the UK to have control/own policy x” also assumes that the UK has somehow lost control over the particular policy area – and if you look at the table of issues – this is simply not true for policy areas that do not fall under “exclusive EU competence“. So most of the statements are – at least slightly – misleading. Plus if you have a list like this everyone will tick a couple of boxes which gives you high percentages and long list of “demands” – just imagine an open question in comparison! Of course openeurope chose – and formulated those 15 policy areas which does explain the framing. However, let’s look at the four main issues in more detail:
1. Allowing the UK to have its own immigration policy
Immigration is – not surprisingly – the “top priority” with more than 50% approval. Never mind that the numbers have gone down recently – and that generally immigration has brought some economic benefits to the UK. But there is another problem: The EU has hardly any competence in immigration policy. Now I know most people perceive intra-EU migration as part of the problem – but to change this you need to re-negotiate the EU’s four freedoms which is basically a non-starter. Obviously the problem are not the German or French “ex-pats” in the UK (nor the British pensioners buying property in Spain) – the problem are the Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian “immigrants” and “benefit tourists” (as if the UK had a generous welfare state) And interestingly, EU “immigrants” are less likely to claim benefit than UK citizens.
But even in the policy area of immigration it was the UK’s decision (after being the champion of EU enlargement!) not to impose transitional measures after the 2004 enlargement (as most other EU countries did!) – so at the end it was a national decision that led to increased levels of immigration. So what can the Britain do to “please” the right-wing media/ potential UKIP voters? Introduce some new hurdles for Romanian and Bulgarians to come to the UK next year? Promise automatic transitional measures for all future enlargements? Or make life more burdensome for all EU citizens in the country (and risk a few court cases in Luxembourg – which will conveniently happen after the referendum)? Last year openeurope published a paper on this issue and proposed a reform of the EU’s Free Movement Directive. It is a rather complicated legal issue – but the direction is clear: instead of strengthening EU citizenship the debate will be framed around access to benefits. The recent announcement of the Commission to take the UK to the ECJ over its “right to residue test” is part of this “battle”.
2. Giving UK parliament more powers to block unwanted EU laws
This is a very interesting one – and I wonder where it is coming from (did the government thought of the red card procedure and wanted to have some data to back it up?). But again there are problems: The proposed “red card” procedure would be based on the” yellow card” procedure (apparently this procedure – introduced by the Lisbon Treaty – has been so successful that it was only used once! And the government claims that is because the EP is in charge of it… but again this is another story) – anyway, you need 2/3 of parliaments in Europe to coordinate a joint position, which is a rather difficult exercise – to say the least.
Instead of opening the treaties for a procedure that is complex and not very effective – why not give the parliament the power to hold ministers to account. Maybe the UK government should visit Denmark to see how it can be done, and how the European Scrutiny committee would become the de-facto center of EU policy- making (Maybe David Cameron now regrets the decision to put Bill Cash in charge … ) In addition the “scrap the European Parliament” idea (not part of the current debate at all – so why is it in there?) has to be seen in this context. The idea of openeurope/UK government is that democracy can only work on the national level – only here you can have increased legitimacy. Theoretically, this undermines the European Parliament and gives national governments another veto possibility through their parliaments/chief whips.
3. Reducing Britain’s contribution to the EU
The UK has a permanent “budget rebate” and pays less in GDP % than some of the poorer member states. The fact that significant part of the population thinks that the EU is expensive and the UK should pay less is clearly a success for UKIP. But in this year’s budget negotiations David Cameron claimed a “victory” so the government could make the case that its “renegotiation” was successful . However, people tend to believe UKIP and the Daily Mail when it comes to costs – a problem that can probably not be solved.
4. Allowing the UK to have control over police and criminal justice laws.
Again, not an exclusive EU competence – and a reflection of the hysterical media debate. Most people probably put European Court of Human Rights in Strassbourg into the equation (which is not an EU institution). At the same time this is something the government can deliver. David Cameron can use the nuclear JHA opt-out while hoping to manage some opt-ins at a later stage. Probably the most likely area where the government can really deliver – the problem here is what to do afterwards as the government is eager to opt-in some selective JHA measures…
5. The rest
The top four priorities would not suggest that a full blown treaty renegotiation is required (so do we really need an ICG?): The JHA opt-out will be the most visible action – all other things can be achieved through mixture of some changes in directives and some significant changes in the UK system itself. The real “problematic” policy areas in terms of renegotiation are buried further down the list: allowing the UK to negotiate trade deals with third countries (a surprising fifth place though!), regional policy, fisheries, agriculture – even employment legislation (better known as the WTD are not part of the top priorities.
It is ironic that people apparently want a “significant return of powers” but when given the choice they don’t really choose the options that would also involve a “significant return of power”.