EU deal won’t impact Brexit decision

EU deal won’t impact Brexit decision

The UK has obtained some important concessions from the EU ahead – and because – of its Brexit referendum. The deal Cameron brought back from Brussels improves the terms of UK membership in the areas of immigration, security and accountability. Still, it is expected to play only a small role in the outcome of the referendum.

On January 23rd, 2013, David Cameron gave a speech at Bloomberg’s London headquarters in which he pledged to hold an in/out referendum before the end of 2017 on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Following his victory at the polls in the general election of 2015, he set in motion negotiations with the European Council and EU heads of government to obtain key reforms in exchange for continued UK membership in the EU.

His formal demands were officially presented on November 10th, 2015, by way of an open letter, to Donald Tusk, head of the European Council. The bargaining process culminated in a two-day summit in Brussels on February 18 and 19. Mr Cameron then returned to London with a number of legally binding concessions to his European agenda.

The deal contains some important concessions, although it is still far from revolutionary. In a testament to the modesty of the demands in his November letter, the deal concedes the lion’s share of his requests. Some of the changes are little more than symbolic. For example, the many references to the goal of achieving “ever closer union” are to be reworded to explicitly exclude the United Kingdom.

What’s in the deal?

The EU treaties will be amended to include guarantees that the group of Eurozone members cannot use their majority within the EU to enact discriminatory rules against the rest. Although the UK is the sole nation benefiting from an explicit opt-out clause, there are currently eight other nations in the EU that do not use the Euro as their currency. The deal also guarantees that non-Eurozone EU members will be exempted from having to contribute financially to measures intended to safeguard the single currency. This entrenches an accord Mr. Cameron had already reached in 2010. In the summer of 2015, it helped Britain save close to £1 billion – its share of the Greek bailout.

EU member states will also be handed more control over the policing of their own borders, if not the right to close them to intra-EU movement. For Britain, that means being able to keep out fraudsters and people considered to be a security risk, regardless of the existence of prior convictions.

One of the major sticking points in the negotiations has been the UK’s request for the permission to curb benefits paid out to migrant workers. The reforms will now allow the deployment of an “emergency brake”, lasting no longer than seven years, by EU member states. Doing so will block new migrants from claiming in-work benefits, which include tax credits and payments for childcare, for as long as four years after their arrival. In addition, child benefits paid to migrant workers will be indexed to the cost of living in the child’s original country of residence.

These concessions are considerable victories for Mr. Cameron. The requests had been met with vocal opposition in continental Europe and had also been described by many as politically infeasible. But don’t sell the bear’s fur before the beast has been killed. Both of these measures, unlike the others in the deal, still have to be submitted before the European parliament for ratification, and they are already proving contentious. Some believe they may be challenged in court for violating EU anti-discrimination laws.

Finally, the EU has agreed to reform its parliamentary procedure by conceding the institution of a measure known as “red card”. This allows a group of EU national parliaments that collectively represent more than 55% of European parliament votes to send back to the floor any piece of legislation with which it disagrees. The bill must then be reworked by representatives until it can pass muster. The grounds for using this card are however limited to issues of subsidiarity – essentially claims that the EU is overstepping its mandate – and this procedural change may thus not be significant in practice.

What’s next?

As expected, many have expressed disappointment in the deal. It is not obvious that the prime minister could have obtained much more. Opponents to more meaningful reforms are a dime a dozen in continental Europe.

Austria and Germany are keen to avoid conceding too much, less they throw fuel at the Eurosceptic fires already blazing at home. France, whose financial institutions already compete fiercely with their British counterparts, are intent on preventing the City of London from acquiring special status allowing it to evade the EU’s strict financial rules. Finally, a bloc of Eastern European countries including Poland and the Czech Republic have opposed proposed changes to benefits paid to migrants. Their nationals would bear the brunt of any such reforms. Some fear the deal could cause a spike in immigration.

The implementation of the agreement hammered out in Brussels is conditional upon the outcome of the referendum. Additionally, the clauses reducing benefits to immigrants only apply to future arrivals, and in any case still have to be approved by the European parliament. This may partly explain Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum on June 23rd, less than four months away. This may also simply be due to the fact that a longer campaign increases the chances of unexpected events weakening the incumbency advantage of the status quo. As some have already pointed out, the worsening of the migrant crisis or another Paris-style attack could suddenly give the Out forces the high ground.

The way public attention in the UK quickly swept to other matters indicates that there is little probability the deal will play an important role in what follows.

Some voters straddling the fence may yet be swayed by the few improvements on display. Still, the squeezing of the middle class by the forces of globalization remains uninterrupted. For many Britons, little else matters.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Etienne Desjardins

Etienne Desjardins is a doctoral candidate in economics at the London School of Economics. His interests are at the crossroads of macroeconomics and political economy. He holds an MSc in Economics from the London School of Economics and a BSc in Economics from the University of Montreal. He has worked as a research assistant in the department of International Economic Analysis at the Bank of Canada and now teaches undergraduate and postgraduate classes in macroeconomics at the LSE.