UK calls for EU reform: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

Through successive Treaties, the policy areas in which the EU has responsibilities (competences) and legislative power have been gradually expanded.

As the 32-volume Balance of Competences Review assembled by the previous Government shows, membership of the EU influences the UK in varied and complex ways.

Concerns about loss of sovereignty, lack of accountability and ineffective governance have led both Labour and the Conservatives to propose reforming the EU to better reflect the UK’s interests.

Europe à la carte may not be on the menu for the UK. Special treatment and exceptionalism for individual countries undermines the EU’s common objectives: as the Swedish Foreign Minister put it in 2013, “if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, there is no Europe at all”. Nor is there much appetite for Treaty change that would alter shared goals and pare back the EU’s competences.

However, with political will and expectation management, the Government could go some way to addressing concerns about the way the EU operates. The rest of this article looks at the scope for change in selected areas of concern.

Repatriating powers back to the UK

Repatriating the EU’s legal powers and responsibilities in certain policy areas, including the controversial field of social and employment law, would require Treaty change.

Chart: opinion on UK's membership of the EU

Not so sceptical? The balance of opinion on the UK's membership of the EU became more favourable in 2014 - percentage of respondents wishing to remain in EU minus percentage of respondents wishing to leave: positive figures (green circles) indicate

Chart showing the respondents wishing that the UK remains in the EU minus the percentage of respondents wishing to leave

Stopping ‘ever closer union’

The preamble to the Treaty on European Union resolves “to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

Removing the preamble would require a Treaty change, although a political declaration to clarify its meaning, and reaffirm that the Treaties also oblige the EU to respect Member States’ history, national identities, political and constitutional structures may achieve the same effect.

Enhancing the role of national parliaments and preventing ‘mission creep’ by the European Commission

The 2008 Lisbon Treaty contained provisions for national parliaments, working together, to warn the European Commission when they believed it was straying into areas of national competence.

Further measures, such as a ‘red card’ system to allow national parliaments to stop European Commission proposals, would require Treaty change.

Reducing “red tape” and regulation

Between 2007 and 2014, the EU had a high-level group dedicated to reducing administrative burdens arising from EU regulation.

Ensuring its recommendations are implemented, and achieving ‘soft’ commitments to avoid unduly burdensome regulation in the future, should be straightforward.

Amendment or repeal of existing EU regulations will require the UK to amass the political will and the necessary majorities among other Member States.

Limiting free movement and access of EU migrants to the welfare system

Any direct restriction on the freedom of movement would require amendment of several Treaty Articles, along with the 2004 Free Movement Directive and 2011 Regulation.

The scope for ‘benefits tourism’ is already limited. As the  European Union Court of Justice recently confirmed, EU migrants not looking for work do not have a right to receive out-of-work benefits (see also p.<>, Immigration – is the number up for the target).

Further restrictions, for instance limiting the right of EU migrants to claim in-work benefits, would require either amendments to secondary legislation or Treaty change.

Since accession treaties require unanimous agreement, in the future, the UK could insist on longer transitional restrictions on free movement rights for new Member States.

Limiting EU role in the UK’s police and justice system

The UK already has extensive opt-outs from police and justice measures, and it is able to opt back in if it chooses. A complete opt-out from all such provisions would require Treaty change.

Preventing Eurozone dominance

As the Eurozone integrates further, the UK may wish to seek safeguards to ensure policymaking continues to reflect the interests of the EU as a whole. There may be scope to ally with other non-eurozoneEurozone EU members here, although many of these countries are seeking to join the single currency.

Judging success

The themes of “reform” and “renegotiation” have, for the moment, united a broad church, from those who want to see incremental improvements to the way the EU operates, to those who wish to pare back its frontiers and fundamentally change its objectives.

While efforts by the UK Government to renegotiate or reform will almost certainly effect some change, it is unlikely that everyone will be satisfied.

The most important measure of success, for many, will be whether “renegotiation” pushes back the tide of euroscepticism among the public; indeed, if a referendum on the UK’s membership goes ahead, it will be the only relevant measure of success.

Opinion polls show that the idea of reforming the EU, or renegotiating the terms of the UK’s membership, has public support; but it is not clear from these polls what precisely the public expects from this process.

As the Balance of Competences Review showed, the EU is a complex institution, and presenting the fruits of any “renegotiation” in a way that most of the public fully understand, let alone accept, may be challenging.

How to change the EU

Over 1,000 new regulations and directives are typically adopted by the EU each year and more than 500 existing ones are repealed. The EU is thus, in some respects, in a state of continuous reform and the UK could achieve significant changes by successfully influencing future EU policy and law. In the past, it has played a pivotal role in the development of EU legislation and policy, particularly in the single market, and in its reform (most notably agriculture and fisheries policy). It has also negotiated opt-outs from EU policies while they were developed, such as the Eurozone and the Schengen travel area, and enjoys a ‘pick and choose’ arrangement in the area of justice and home affairs.

Changing existing EU rules and their application may require amending secondary legislation (regulations, directives and decisions). To do this, the UK would have to amass the political will and consent to change the law, but this need not involve the unanimous agreement of all Member States. Measures to pare back the frontiers of the EU’s legislative powers and responsibilities, and to change its core objectives and principles, would require Treaty change and the political agreement of all the other EU Member States. This could involve a time-consuming process of negotiation, ratification by national Parliaments; and in some countries, a referendum. 

Party Lines

  • Conservatives: in/out referendum by the end of 2017
  • Greens: would hold an in/out referendum
  • Labour: work to reform the EU and retain membership and would legislate for a lock that guarantees no transfer of power without an in/out referendum
  • Liberal democrats: hold an in/out referendum when there is next a treaty change that involves the transfer of sovereignty
  • SNP: will seek to ammed legislation to ensure no constituent part of the UK can be taken out of the EU against its will
  • UKIP: will hold an in/out referendum as soon as possible

 

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