26 May 2015

EU renegotiation: what does Britain want?

David Cameron says Britain is “not happy with the status quo” in the EU, so what changes is he seeking as he prepares for a referendum?

David Cameron and Angela Merkel (Getty)

The prime minister has not set out a in detail what he wants from Britain’s renegotiaton with the EU ahead of the in/out referendum – keeping your powder dry is a key part of diplomacy – but we have a good idea of the changes that are likely to be discussed.

After his talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, and discussions with European leaders over the next month, he hopes he can make progress that eventually leads to reforms he can put to the British people by the end of 2017.

Mr Cameron realises he cannot alter freedom of movement within the EU – the right of a Pole to settle in Britain or a Briton to settle in Poland – but he can argue for changes that limit the rights of new arrivals in the UK.

The government wants to lower net migration to the “tens of thousands”, but it seems to be fighting a losing battle, with the latest figures showing a 52 per cent rise to 318,000 over the past year – driven by higher numbers from in and outside the EU.

Benefit restrictions

It hopes that placing restrictions on what new EU migrants can claim in benefits will bring these numbers down. In Mr Cameron’s sights are both in-work and out-of-work benefits, with migrants having to live in the UK for four years before they can make a claim.

The EU is committed to an “ever-closer union” of the people of Europe, a phrase the prime minister may want changed to reflect the fact that Britain – and some other EU countries – are not part of the Franco-German inner core and have no wish to be so.

Red card

He, and other countries, are also pushing for a “red card” system for new EU legislation, with national parliaments able to block laws drawn up by the European Commission.

Britain continues to favour an enlarged EU. It was an enthusiastic supporter of the accession of eastern European countries – which helped to drive up net migration in the UK – but now says that big population movements need to be controlled.

Another aim is cutting red tape for business and protecting the City of London from future EU measures that could limit its freedom of manoeuvre.

Britain is not a member of the euro – and there is no pressure on it to join the single currency – but the government wants to be sure that future changes to the single market agreed by eurozone countries cannot be forced on states that are not members.


It also wants it to be made clear that the EU is a multi-currency, rather than single currency, bloc: of the EU’s 27 member states, 19 are in the euro.

Whether the prime minister achieves his aims remains to be seen. His decisive election victory strengthens his hand and he has worked hard to win a sympathetic ear in Germany. But France will be harder to convince.

Other countries will not want to lose Britain’s financial payments to the EU – it is a big net contributor – but the prime minister will be aware that steeliness must be combined with charm and flexibility if he is to get his way.

In the referendum, Mr Cameron wants to be able to campaign for Britain to remain a member of a reformed EU. He is playing for high stakes.