David Herdson say pursuing reform in the EU isn’t a pipe-dream

David Herdson say pursuing reform in the EU isn’t a pipe-dream


The question is whether Brexit is needed to kick-start it

Remember the government’s EU renegotiation? It was a big deal back in February when it was agreed after a marathon European Council summit and has been little heard of since. True, the five points do briefly appear in the government’s referendum leaflet but hardly any of the campaigning for or against membership has bothered to reference them. They are now essentially an irrelevance.

To the extent that they are brought up, it’s more often as evidence of the difficulty of achieving change than as evidence of successful reform. It’s certainly the case that a lot of effort went into not much outcome but then the window Cameron gave himself to gain a deal was always limiting – he could have had another year.

Sceptics would no doubt argue that another year would have made little difference; that the EU has had decades to reform and has done nothing more than accrue powers – why should this time be different? Three reasons.

Firstly, the time is ripe for more fundamental change anyway. The EU still hasn’t really come to institutional grips with the Eurozone crisis, never mind the challenges of the recent mass migration. Greater co-ordination and new central powers are needed if the single currency and single border
are to survive without endless ad hoc emergency summits cobbling solutions together at the last minute. That necessity offers an opportunity to those wanting a quid pro quo written into the treaties.

Secondly, the EU is losing support across Europe. Britain flirting with withdrawal is the most obvious example but the Dutch referendum result against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is another, as is the rise of populist anti-EU sentiment in general (as distinct from anti-EU noises from the extremes). Unless the EU’s leadership can put together a meaningful response in both policy and reform, that trend will continue with the risk that the entire Union is put at risk. It is of course possible that faced with that threat, the Euro-elite will circle the wagons and remain loyal to The Project but there comes a point when the domestic electoral consequences outweigh the diplomatic gains from appearing a Good European. That point is already here for some and near for others.

And the third reason, in simple power terms, is money. Those countries that most need reform in the EU are by and large those which pay in most. That is a powerful lever to extract concessions from the rest. That Britain might leave, opening up a £10bn pa hole in the EU’s budget is pause for thought; how much worse were that to begin a chain reaction? Governments such as that of the Netherlands could quite happily assure their colleagues of their own European commitment while simultaneously pointing to the domestic pressures they’re under.

Those three factors combined do provide potent pressures to do something. Will they be enough? Possibly, but the true believers among the Eurocrats have always operated on the principle of action first, public later – bag the integration and let the benefits commend themselves. It’s not always been wholly successful.

Which is why ironically, while reform might very well come if Remain wins, it’s even more likely if Leave does. The shock of losing a major member, if one that’s been semidetached for some time, would be profound; business simply couldn’t go on as normal even if the more bull-headed might suggest so. Either way, Cameron’s February negotiation is likely to have been only the starter; the main course is still to come.

David Herdson

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