The Government’s tone, language and overall approach can play an important role in maintaining UK influence in the EU. The Prime Minister is to be commended for launching an ambitious agenda for reform of the EU as a whole, the Committee says. Given the crisis in the Eurozone and rising popular disaffection with the EU, it would be hard for others in the EU to argue that change is not required.
Proposals for reforms for the EU as a whole are likely to find a more favourable reception than possible requests for further ‘special treatment’ for the UK. The Committee is sceptical that other Member States would be willing to renegotiate existing EU law so as to allow the UK on its own to reduce its degree of integration, especially where this could be seen as undermining the integrity of the Single Market.
Other Member States appear to want the UK to remain an EU Member. However, the Government could not successfully demand ‘any price’ for promising to try to keep the UK in the Union.
The Government is correct to have identified closer Eurozone integration as a potential risk to the position of the UK and other non-Eurozone states in the EU. However, the December 2012 agreement on the Single Supervisory Mechanism for banking regulation shows what the UK can achieve to protect its position, through close and constructive engagement in response to a specific, potentially problematic, proposal.
The Eurozone is in any case far from a homogenous bloc: Member State alliances around the EU continue to vary from issue to issue and to straddle the divide between the Eurozone and the rest. The expansion and closer integration of the Eurozone does not therefore necessarily render the UK’s position in the EU impossible or worthless.
In its Report, the Committee does not examine whether the UK should remain in the EU or withdraw, and takes no view on the ‘in/out’ question. However, it agrees with the Government that, if the UK were to leave the EU, the current arrangements for relations with the EU which are maintained by Norway or Switzerland would not be appropriate for the UK.
If it is in the UK’s interest to remain in the Single Market, the UK should either remain in the EU, or launch an effort for radical institutional change in Europe to give decision-making rights in the Single Market to all its participating states.
Committee Chairman Richard Ottaway MP said:
"The Prime Minister has not spelled out what he might ask for in any negotiation with his EU partners after 2015, and it is over a year, at least, before any major EU Treaty reform process seems likely to get underway, so it is impossible now to assess the likelihood of him securing the kind of ‘new settlement’ for the UK in the EU that he might seek.
Reform and renegotiation in the EU takes time and is often complex and difficult. It is important for everyone in the UK to understand that we are involved in a collective process with 26 other countries (27 when Croatia joins on 1 July), whether we are trying to reform a single piece of EU legislation or leave the EU.
In many respects, we are nearer the start of a process than the end. We are going to be discussing these issues for several years, and at this stage my Committee in its Report aimed partly to raise questions and inform the debate. We are clear that the Government’s best overall policy is to remain constructive, engaged and thinking in terms of the EU as a whole."