Open Europe Blog

What do David Cameron’s seven EU 
reform commitments mean?

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, David Cameron set out seven objectives – or eight if you read between the lines – for a Conservative EU reform agenda ahead of that potential 2017 EU referendum. Surprisingly, despite this being the most explicit that David Cameron has been in setting out a ‘shopping list’ (an unfortunate term), it has generated surprisingly little attention, in the UK and abroad.

To be fair, none of these objectives are completely new, one is not strictly to do with the EU, while in the case of some of the others it would be rather difficult to define success. Interestingly only the point about removing the commitment to “ever closer union” would definitely require treaty change.

In large parts, these are broad principles rather than specific policies – which is wholly appropriate given that it would be silly to set out a set of clear polices so far in advance (though some of these could easily get under way now). Here are the seven:


What does it involve?

Treaty Change?

“Powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it”

This is an overarching principle which would take a number of forms, including repatriating entire areas of EU powers, such as regional policy, to repealing specific regulations, to structural changes in the EU (incl. possible Treaty changes) that makes it easier to roll back the acquis such as a “green card” for national parliaments.

Depends. Reforms to regional policy and repealing individual rules, such as the Working Time Directive, would not require treaty change. Removing entire EU powers or structural changes might.

“National parliaments able to work together to block unwanted European legislation.”

At present a third or more of national parliaments can require the European Commission to reconsider proposals (a yellow card) – but it has only been used twice. There are various proposed ways of strengthening this mechanism to allow national parliaments collectively the power to strike down EU laws. This could give them a legal veto – the ‘red card’ or simply strengthen the existing mechanism.

If placed into EU law it would require treaty change. However, the Dutch Foreign Minister has suggested this could also be done through a “political agreement” between the Member States requiring the Commission to treat the yellow card as a de facto veto

“Businesses liberated from red tape and benefiting from the strength of the EU’s own market – the biggest and wealthiest on the planet – to open up greater free trade with North America and Asia.”

De-regulation is very difficult to quantify. It could involve proposals to exempt small business from EU regulations. It could also involve imposing a repeal mechanism (a green card operated by national parliaments), sunset clauses, for EU laws as well as reviewing old EU regulations.

This agenda also suggests further services liberalisation and the completion of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and further free trade agreements.

None of the “competitiveness agenda” requires Treaty Change.

However, it is far from certain that TTIP will be agreed and then ratified while cutting EU red tape is always a challenge in the face of interest groups and the European Parliament – but far from impossible in the face of political will.

“Our police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the ECHR.”

This could involve withdrawal from the ECHR, successful reform of the ECHR or a UK Bill of Rights limiting its impact in the UK.

The reference to “European Institutions” could imply removing the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) jurisdiction over EU crime and policing law.

Withdrawing from the ECHR would not require EU treaty change as it’s not to do with the EU.

Removing ECJ jurisdiction over EU crime and policing laws would.

“Free movement to take up work, not free benefits.”

This could involve a number of changes to EU rules around free movement including strengthening the link between economic contribution of EU migrants and access to benefits and ending “exportability” of child benefits.

Reforming the Free Movement Directive and the Social Security Regulation could be done without treaty change. Putting an outright cap on EU migration – which Cameron has NOT suggested – would require Treaty change.

“Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the Continent.”

This would involve imposing tougher transitional controls on all future EU accessions, for example by extending the existing 7 year maximum transitional period or linking the right to free movement to population size and/or relative wealth levels.

EU enlargement requires a new Treaty with the accession state(s) over which all existing EU members would have a veto, so London could push this demand as the price for its agreement. However, enlargement does not alter the underlying EU Treaties themselves.

Dealing properly with the concept of “ever closer union”.

The EU treaties currently include a commitment to “ever closer union”. Removing these words would be largely symbolic but could have some political, and possible indirect judicial, impact.

Yes, given that the concept is itself enshrined in the treaty.

In addition, though he has not said so specifically, apart from a passing reference to need to achieve a union for both eurozone and non-eurozone countries, another priority for David Cameron will most definitely be to secure safeguards against eurozone caucasing.

A number of questions still remain of course, including the various reform ideas not touched on this article, including the EU budget, employment law or dealing with the ECJ (though they all could fit under the general principles he has laid out).

Lastly, David Cameron has said he will pursue this reform agenda followed by a referendum “if he is Prime Minister”. This is important as he appears to be setting down a red-line in any future negotiations with the Liberal Democrats to continue the Coalition.

The big question is if these reforms were to fail, would he campaign to leave or stay in regardless?

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