7 December 2015

European Council President Donald Tusk has today written to EU leaders with his verdict on the UK’s reform demands and the state of the negotiations heading into the December EU summit. Tusk’s general remarks are that the agenda is “far-reaching” and “difficult” but that “good progress” has been made so far.

Access to welfare the major sticking point

Taking the four ‘baskets’ in turn Tusk has the following to say:

  1. Eurozone ins and outs: Tusk suggests agreement could be found around the principle that non-euro countries should not be discriminated against and he cites the possibility of new mechanism to ensure non-euro rights are respected (we have set out a proposal here). As ever, the devil will be in the detail but the letter suggests we will see more than a simple declaration on non-discrimination and that non-euro member states will have recourse to some form of ‘red flag’ or ‘emergency brake’. This provides grounds for cautious optimism that the issue will be addressed properly although the language (‘could’ and ‘would’) suggests this is not yet a done deal.
  2. ‘Competitiveness’: Here the language is all positive – “Everybody agrees on the need to further work on better regulation and on lessening the burdens on business while maintaining high standards” – which is of little surprise, since who would be against it?
  3. Sovereignty: Tusk notes that “There is wide agreement that the concept of ‘ever closer union among the peoples’ allows for various paths of integration for different countries”, which suggests agreement over this element should be relatively straightforward. However, while there is “a largely shared” view of the importance of national parliaments, there is no explicit mention of the ‘red card’. We have today warned against a lowest common denominator fudge in this respect.
  4. Migration and access to welfare: The trickiest of the bunch and Tusk makes it clear that there is “presently no consensus” on the proposed four-year benefits ban. However, he does not explicitly cite legal or technical considerations as the deal-breaker but suggests that “a substantive political debate” is required – it sounds like Tusk thinks this more a matter of political will than legal impossibility.

There is perhaps little to surprise here and it largely reflects our earlier analysis of where member states stand on the various issues. There is of course the important issue of how these reforms would be legally enacted and enshrined, which remains outstanding.

Tusk puts ball in other member states’ court

Perhaps the most striking thing about the letter is the concluding political remarks about the negotiating process. Reading between the lines, Tusk is clearly asking other member states and the EU institutions (Commission and Parliament) to engage more constructively with Britain’s demands – which, on the flip side, suggests they haven’t so far. Here is the passage:

All involved must take their part of responsibility. I will act as an honest broker but all Member States and the institutions must show readiness for compromise for this process to succeed. Our goal is to find solutions that will meet the expectations of the British Prime Minister, while cementing the foundations on which the EU is based. Uncertainty about the future of the UK in the European Union is a destabilizing factor. That is why we must find a way to answer the British concerns as quickly as possible.

All in all then, nothing particularly surprising but the tone of the letter suggests Tusk thinks other EU states need to move closer to the UK’s position.