The European Council will meet in Brussels on February 18 and 19 with the express aim of successfully concluding negotiations with the United Kingdom on legislative reforms to help keep Britain inside the European Union.
*** And while it is too early to say if the agreement will be enough to avert a “Brexit” in the upcoming – most likely in June – in/out UK referendum, what we hear is that the EU Council is indeed prepared to meet most of the demands outlined by Prime Minister David Cameron in his letter of last November. ***
*** On what is the biggest, and most politically charged, sticking point, the limitation of work-related benefits for EU workers and job seekers who move to the UK, Cameron will limit benefits to EU citizens whom have completed at least four years of work in the UK. But in order to avoid violating EU Treaty rules on equal treatment, that four-year benefit limitation will include British citizens as well. To offset the domestic fallout, Cameron will offer a “citizenship” income (exclusively) to UK nationals between the ages of 18 and 22, a type of benefit that happens not to fall under the non-discrimination EU principle. ***
*** The commitment to “increase EU competitiveness and reduce red tape” will probably be reiterated in the Council statement following the meeting. And the changes to EU legislation that require Treaty modifications – the opt-out of the UK from an “Ever Closer Union,” the granting to national parliaments of “yellow and red cards” to block EU legislation, and the protection clause for non-Eurozone countries (together with a UK pledge not to veto proposals that go towards more Eurozone integration per se) – will likely be included in a Protocol to be annexed to a new EU Treaty. ***
Few Real EU Objections
The EU will seek to have negotiations over those measures begin in late 2017, conveniently after the French and German elections. However, Conservative Party members tell us the UK will accept nothing short of a specific text and a clear commitment now for these modifications to be included in the new Treaty.
Truth be told, most EU countries have few objections to the provisions of such a deal except, of course, the so-called “Visegrad 4 Group” (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary), which are the most sensitive to fears their nationals living in the UK will be discriminated against. But from what we understand even the Visegard Group are willing issue a statement of cautious support, and will not oppose a deal so long as the principle of non-discrimination of EU workers is not violated – at least too openly.
Indeed, the newly elected Polish government badly needs political allies within the Council as it battles to win support within the Council on proposed changes to its own constitution, which Brussels claims go against core EU values.
The UK, without going as far as taking Poland’s side, will remain quiet on that issue, maintaining that constitutional reform is an internal matter for Poland, in a concession for Warsaw’s support for the February agreement. Not that there is a quid pro quo anywhere mind you.
But Still a Long Road to “Stay”
That a deal is highly likely to be signed at the next EU Council does not automatically mean UK citizens will vote to “stay” in the EU in June. The road to the referendum is long and bumpy, and Cameron knows that.
But the likelihood of a February deal is surely a sign that other Member States – and especially key ones such as Germany – have acknowledged the importance of granting concessions to keep Britain “in,” and are showing a great deal of sensitivity to Cameron’s timing issues as well as perhaps to some of their own domestic pressures over migrant rights.
With TV images of stranded migrants on Greek beaches last summer, blockades of the French port of Calais, and Eurostar train cancellations and delays, the British Prime Minister is pushing to hold the in/out referendum before what could be another ugly summer, possibly in June. And that, in turn, has forced the Council to deal with the issue in an unusually, by EU standards, expeditious fashion.