The Paris attacks on 13 November 2015 were without question a watershed moment in 2015. The devastating loss of 130 lives of people going about ordinary Friday night activity in their national capital forced France to recognise explicitly that it was a country at war, even though the nature of that war was something new and evolving. And the messages of solidarity that flooded in from France’s European neighbours, were also a recognition that Europe is indeed in this together, and we all bear some responsibility in how Europe shapes up to the multifaceted threat we face from the Islamic State. For the UK there was a grim acceptance that what happened in Paris could also happen in London. David Cameron returned from talks in Paris on Monday evening with slightly different priorities in his European agenda than those he might have expected to have when he laid out his EU plans at Chatham House three days before the Paris attacks. His commitments to Hollande were about taking the discussion forward on whether the UK should join France’s airstrikes against IS in Syria, and offering France use of a British airbase for their efforts.
Nevertheless, in spite of the changed picture, the UK’s EU reform agenda is still there in the background. On 10 November, Cameron laid down the gauntlet on renegotiation, both to the others who sit with him around the EU Council table and, perhaps more critically, to those at home that argue that the EU as it stands is not a good place for the UK to be. With one hand he tried to sow some first seeds of positivity about the European project, which he hopes to be in a position to nurture domestically as leader of an in-campaign if and when a good renegotiation deal is done. But at the same time he needed to show the Eurosceptics and the undecided that he is under no illusion about just how ‘exceptional’ the UK is in its relationship with the European Union: if the UK votes to stay in, he will need to show that things will be different going forward – a better EU, with the UK in, but not feeling that it is tied in too close for comfort.
Reactions at home were mixed, but on balance his message probably went down as well as it was ever going to at this point. And with his European renegotiation partners? President Tusk has set out that he believes it will be very challenging to get a deal on Cameron’s list in time for the December 17-18 Council meeting with so much to work through and so many partners, and has reportedly given Cameron one week more to set out his concrete negotiating position. Indeed, the EU is a multifarious place, and with so much political energy at head of state level absorbed by the refugee crisis as well as the security, intelligence, foreign policy and – now that France has invoked clause 42.7 of the TEU – possible CSDP response to the Paris attacks, the simple challenge of finding time in the EU leaders’ agendas to focus on the UK’s reform demands is a real one.
But ECFR’s research over the past few months has shown that the demands Cameron has set out are achievable from the perspective of other EU states provided the UK does not lose the goodwill of other European states at this point. We have updated our Renegotiation Scorecard to set our latest information on member states’ position, and separated the views on the commitment to ever closer union and on protections on Euro-outs, (also merging two of the lines on migrants access to welfare benefits) to reflect the emphases made in Cameron’s Chatham House speech.
Completing the single market, and reducing regulatory burdens on business enjoy broad support across the EU, and represent the extension of existing EU commitments. As reaction to UK Chancellor George Osborne’s speech earlier this month in Berlin to the German BDI, which laid out the case for protection of non-eurozone countries’ interests, reiterated, eurozone member states understand UK concerns on this and want to find a way of accommodating it, although there is some concern about the detail of how mechanisms could function in practice. The wording around this in Cameron’s letter to Tusk that suggested pulling Britain out of the commitment to ‘ever closer union’ in a ‘formal, legally binding and irreversible way’ (subtext: without rewriting the treaties) will have done a lot to assuage the concerns of some of the core, larger member states (France, Germany, Italy included) who had strong concerns about treaty change. With the exception of some more hardline member states such as Spain, increasing the role of national parliaments is quite popular in an EU where so many governments are under pressure from Eurosceptic forces – or indeed as in the recent case of Poland, with the recent success of the Law and Justice party in the elections, are now governed by them – and democratic accountability is an important antidote to this pressure. Though the UK hasn’t played a big part in the European response to the refugee crisis, counterintuitively, this doesn’t appear to have undermined the willingness of other European partners to support it in the renegotiation process. In some ways it is the reverse: the sense of threat from refugee inflows that other member states are feeling appears to have made them more sympathetic to UK concerns in the field of migration, and the need to find ways to accommodate UK demands on restricting migrants access to in work benefits – as long as the basic principle of freedom of movement remains sacrosanct.
In terms of tactics, ECFR’s Renegotiation Scorecard shows that the Franco-German bloc is fairly tightly aligned throughout the list of demands. So Cameron will need to work hard to bring Merkel and Hollande along with him over the coming weeks. Merkel’s initial reactions were positive about the work to be done. Coverage in the French media was a little more reserved. Cameron’s admission to the CBI on Monday that he had no ‘emotional’ attachment to the European project did not go down well the other side of the Channel where precisely that emotional tie remains strong. There was concern too about his promise to cut the UK from the binding cords of the EU charter of Fundamental Rights. Going forward it is clear that the number one European priority for Merkel will remain the refugee crisis, and for Hollande will be the response to the terror attacks. Cameron would be well advised to recognise this in the UK support offered on these dossiers, if he wants to call in their goodwill on the renegotiation agenda.
The road ahead to a pan European deal may not be easy, and it now looks more likely than ever to extend beyond the December European Council. But as the final warning section of Cameron’s Chatham House speech two weeks ago reminded, the real challenges for him were always at home – finding a package which is all at once good for Europe, meaty enough to satisfy the hardline anti-Europeans in the Conservative party at home, and exciting enough to get the middle ground of the British electorate to care enough about the process to come out on referendum day and vote. Cameron needs to bring a set of reforms back to London as a basis on which to fight to keep the UK in the EU, not only for its own sake but also as a means to two ends which may constitute his real political legacy: keeping Scotland in the UK, and keeping the UK engaged with the world, not inward looking and feeling threatened. The hard reality is that if Cameron does not win these upcoming fights, the fabric of the UK and the UK’s global role will be irreversibly diminished. And as the Paris attacks reminded us, the current global picture is a frightening one to face up to without good friends.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.