Open Europe Blog

David Cameron and François Hollande have just held their joint press conference following the Anglo-French defence summit in Oxfordshire. Predictably, though, most of the questions focused instead on Cameron’s EU renegotiation strategy and the prospects of it being achieved by changes to the EU treaties.

Here’s what stood out for us:

  • Significantly, Cameron explicitly said that renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership “will involve elements of treaty change”. This is quite a rare admission, and is the most explicit he’s been so far on the need to change the EU treaties. As The Times‘s Sam Coates flagged up, the Prime Minister has been categorical about EU treaty change once before, speaking of “the treaty change that I’ll be putting in place before the referendum”, on the Andrew Marr Show earlier this year – although the question was specifically on EU migrants’ access to benefits. 
  • The Prime Minister also reiterated that “the eurozone needs change…It needs greater co-ordination, it needs those elements that make a single currency succeed. That’s why in recent years we’ve already seen treaty changes.”
  • Hollande said that “France wants more coordination and integration in the eurozone”, but treaty change “is not the priority” for the time being. Though this is what the headlines are likely to focus on, this is nothing new, nor surprising. It’s been the French position for ages. However, Hollande didn’t rule treaty change out. He said it wasn’t “urgent” or “the priority”. As we have argued from the beginning (see here, for instance), the timetable remains a weakness in Cameron’s plan – not least because discussions on changing the EU treaties can drag on for years and the eurozone remains on an uncertain development path.
  • The French President also stressed that major treaty changes (he mentioned the Maastricht Treaty as an example) would have to be put to a referendum in France – while for smaller ones parliamentary approval would be enough.

A couple of points are worth making. It is no secret that one of the reasons France is wary of changing the EU treaties is that referenda are not exactly easy to win (think of the one on the EU Constitution in 2005, but also the one on the Maastricht Treaty, both of which split the country and the political establishment).

This is true assuming that the new Treaty gives the EU more powers. But this is not what Cameron is aiming for. So it is not entirely clear that any UK-led changes would necessarily have to be put to a vote in France.

That said, though, the common wisdom on this point is that an EU treaty change would be part of a ‘grand bargain’ to strengthen economic coordination in the eurozone – meaning that the UK’s new relationship with the EU would be negotiated alongside greater central controls in the euro area. This type of treaty change could clearly trigger a referendum in France (and elsewhere).

The question remains open. With Germany likely to keep pushing for an EU treaty change to complete the overhaul of the eurozone structures, we still think Hollande may have to face the issue sooner rather than later – with the question being what deal Berlin can broker.

And yet again, that brings us back to Angela Merkel.

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