I wrote in this blog about three weeks ago about the commitment given by the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to write to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, setting out the demands which the UK would make in its negotiations with the EU prior to a referendum of the British people some time before the end of 2017 which will decide if the UK remains a member of the EU. My blog concerned a draft letter published in the Daily Telegraph, one of our more serious newspapers, written by Eurosceptic MEP, Daniel Hannan. On 10 November, Mr Cameron wrote the letter to Donald Tusk anticipated by Hannan and published its contents. In brief summary they are:
- A guarantee that the UK will maintain its economic governance and that the Eurozone countries will not be able to outvote the countries choosing to retain their own currency.
- Competitiveness: the EU is seen as bound by needless and restrictive EU rules and regulations on commercial activities which constrain the competitiveness of its members in an increasingly global economy, they need to be reduced.
- Sovereignty: the EU constitution refers to ‘ever closer union’ (of its peoples) and this is seen by many in the UK as an objective of a centralized and federalist state from which the UK wishes to be exempt
- Immigration: the UK wants to restrict the access which immigrants from the EU get to its in work and child benefits until any immigrant has been in the country and contributing to the exchequer through taxes and national insurance for at least four years.
As negotiators, there are a number of things we can reflect on in these four points. Are they enough? Does the Prime Minister have sufficient room for manoeuvre? Are they ‘must get’ or ‘intend to get’? Is there a wish list? I have to say that it may not be tactically the strongest move to table publicly only four items and make no reference to many of the other issues which concern UK citizens about Europe. Indeed one Eurosceptic Conservative MP (they are not hard to find!) yesterday described the proposals as ‘thin gruel’. Of course, satisfying the europhobes in UK public life would not be achieved with a list of forty demands, let alone a mere four.
However, what concerns me today in this blog is not the tactics of the letter which are fascinating in themselves, but the comments which have surrounded it. Let’s look at some of them.
First, and setting a tone, the spokesman for the European Commission said:
"We see a number of elements that seem to be feasible like finding ways to increase the role of national parliaments, some issues which are difficult like the relation between euro ins and outs and some things which are highly problematic as they touch upon fundamental freedoms of our internal market. Direct discrimination between EU citizens clearly falls in this category. The European Commission considers the letter as the beginning not the end of the negotiations. We stand ready to work for a fair deal with Britain that is also fair for all the other member states.”
As a negotiator you may think, as I do, that this is a statement of willingness to negotiate, and one that does not place any issues ‘out of bounds’ but also one that sets up a priority trading position – some things will be a lot tougher than others - and I think it hints that ‘there are a lot more of us than there are of you’ – the first signal of power play?
It’s also important to look at what others in key positions have said. Martin Schulz, the European Parliament President (yes, the EU has TWO presidents!) said that he has ‘strong doubts’ about the legality of the demands on immigration, a fairly clear indication of an unwillingness to consider flexibility on one of the items – one of the ‘highly problematic’ issues perhaps? When does ‘highly problematic’ become impossible? When it is illegal, maybe?
The very influential German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said before the letter was published: “There is a big margin of manoeuvre” referring to the EU’s ability to be flexible. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor said yesterday: “There are some things that are difficult and some that are less difficult”. But, you may note, none that she deems immediately to be impossible. And, finally, David Cameron himself said in reference to the ‘highly problematic’ issue of immigration: “We are open to different ways of dealing with it”.
What, as negotiators should we deduce from all of this? Perhaps we could reach some initial conclusions and make some predictions. There will be negotiations and the first ones must take place within the EU itself so that the national interests which are many and conflicting can establish their collective view because they don’t seem to have one now. There will be movement on both sides on all four issues – there is no signal saying that there is no will for that to be the case. There will be more movement in some areas than in others. There will be many key moments of persuasion of me and the public in the EU to convince us that we are getting the change that the UK government wants without compromising the shibboleths of European cooperation in a way that member states would find unacceptable. Also, there will be power play – the EU does not want a member state to leave – where could that end up? So Cameron will flex his muscles as he has already begun to do.
Smarter minds than mine are going to be giving this their full attention for many months to come, let’s all keep our ears open for the signals and our eyes open for the tactical twists and turns – there will be many.