Cameron's EU demands: Are they enough to appease euroskeptics?

The British prime minister said on Tuesday that the European Union should be reformed to 'operate with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc.' 

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on EU reforms in London on Tuesday. Cameron said he hoped to make good progress with reforms of the European Union when leaders from the bloc meet next month, but he gave no fresh sign of when he plans to hold Britain's EU membership referendum.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of arguably Europe’s most euroskeptic country, struck an unexpectedly conciliatory tone today as he laid out a list of proposed reforms for the European Union.

In a speech in London and later in a letter addressed to European Council President Donald Tusk, Mr. Cameron advocated for why the EU needs Britain, and crucially, why Britain needs the EU. His “wish list” is not just a bid for Britain, he said, but for the betterment of the entire union.

The long-awaited speech was demanded by EU leaders, eager to see what they were up against in negotiations before the UK holds a referendum on whether to remain in the bloc. But it was the style, not the details, that may shift the debate, says Charles Lichfield, a European analyst at Eurasia Group, a London-based political risk consulting firm.

“I think that using this constructive language about the EU helps him build bridges,” Mr. Lichfield says. “He is not the only one who thinks EU regulations are inefficient.”

Analysts predict long and difficult negotiations in the weeks ahead. Cameron is a supporter of Britain staying in the EU. But he must be able to extract concessions from other countries and placate a strong euroskeptic tide in Britain, without sparking resistance or triggering an accidental exit from the bloc.

Cameron has styled himself as the voice of constructive criticism in the EU, which he said should be reformed to "operate with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc."

Yet not everyone is on board. Today's front-page headline of Liberation, a leftist French daily, screamed “Cameron’s blackmail." Not even an hour after he wrapped up his talk at the think tank Chatham House in central London, the EU was calling some of the measures “highly problematic” and even “illegal.” Euroskeptics dismissed it as a non-negotiation, saying he demanded nothing more than the status quo.

In fact, the content of Cameron’s speech had few surprises. While the changes he demanded are the ones he insists mean the most to Brits, they also represent the concessions he has a chance of getting – albeit if not easily – from his European partners.

Cameron called for more protection for EU members outside the eurozone, more competition and less bureaucracy, more sovereignty for national parliaments from Brussels mandates, and exemption from the EU commitment to an “ever-closer union.” He also called for restrictions on migrants from other EU nations coming to Britain for work or welfare. 

Taken as a whole, he says these demands are reasonable. But they’re not without controversy. The think tank Open Europe recently created a “heat map” to show how each EU members will react to each of Cameron’s goals. 

A tough sell

By far the most controversial proposal, the one that’s already been dubbed “illegal,” is his plan to bar EU citizens who move to Britain from receiving benefits paid to working people for the first four years.

Many members say this goes against a core EU principle, which is freedom of movement of goods, services, and people. Those most opposed are the countries that rely on the UK for jobs, notably Poland and other eastern European states. 

Open Europe says the issue of safeguards for countries outside the Eurozone is the second toughest sell in Europe. While the biggest eurozone economies, including Germany and France, agree with Cameron in principle, they might be opposed to any British demand that block their goal of further integration among the eurozone members.

Exemption from forming an “ever closer union” should be easy, as the notion itself is widely considered outdated.  In June 2014, the European Council concluded that there are “different paths of integration for different countries,” Open Europe notes. Still, countries like Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg might be opposed because they have strong attachments to the principle of European integration.

Denmark and Ireland, which would be most hurt by losing Britain, as well as the Netherlands, are the least likely to balk. In fact, Denmark's prime minister tweeted today that Cameron has a “good basis for concrete negotiations. It will be difficult. I hope we will succeed because we need a strong UK in the EU.”

Cameron underlined that point often in his speech today. He reminded listeners that when he first announced the possibility of a referendum three years ago, the EU was mired in troubles. Since then, he argued, those troubles have only grown greater, from the migration crisis to the threat of Islamic extremism.

Cameron's softer tone

Cameron also made a strong argument for Britain staying in the EU, striking a new, more positive tone, analysts say. Instead of threatening the EU with a UK departure, he sought to sell the UK as a reformer that can act as a bridge between euroskeptics and diehard EU integrationists.

Iain Begg, a professor at the European Institute at the London School of Economics, says some members will remain wary of Britain’s aims. He says they are concerned that Britain is trying to create an EU that is more liberal and more outward-looking, essentially an EU "in which they are less at ease." 

Still, Cameron's softer tone could work. Most of his demands "are about making the EU work better," Professor Begg says, which will resonate with key allies such as Germany. Cameron said that belonging to the EU strengthens the UK's economy and its security. "We should be clear that leaving the EU is not some automatic fast track to a land of milk and honey,” he said.

If the EU grants his concessions, Cameron said he “will campaign to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union.”

“I’ll campaign for it with all my heart and all my soul,” he added.

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