14 April 2015

David Cameron has this morning launched the Conservative Manifesto and with it has formalised the Conservative policy of EU renegotiation followed by an In/Out referendum. The manifesto importantly states that “David Cameron has committed that he will only lead a government that offers an in-out referendum” – a clear red line for any Coalition agreement that cannot be negotiated away. However, it remains to be seen whether a minority Conservative Government could deliver a referendum; it will ultimately come down to the parliamentary arithmetic which could place Cameron in a difficult position.

So a majority Conservative government or David Cameron led Coalition will hold an In/Out EU referendum by 2017 at the latest – that much is clear. The manifesto also sets out that the referendum will be preceded by a renegotiation of “a new settlement for Britain in the EU” –  the specifics of this are less clear.

A new settlement for Britain in the EU?

Although a bold statement it is not entirely clear what David Cameron’s “new settlement” might look like. The manifesto sets out a clear general vision for what they would like from the EU:

We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market. Yes to turbocharging free trade. Yes to working together where we are stronger together than alone. Yes to a family of nation states, all part of a European Union – but whose interests, crucially, are guaranteed whether inside the Euro or out. No to ‘ever closer union.’ No to a constant flow of power to Brussels. No to unnecessary interference.

Beyond this general vision there are some specifics:

EU Immigration reform (an absolute requirement):

As expected David Cameron has stuck to his policies announced in his main migration speech. He will stop short of a cap or brake on EU migration seeking instead to tackle the issue of access to welfare. The manifesto states “Changes to welfare to cut EU migration will be an absolute requirement in the renegotiation.” The main policy (based on Open Europe‘s research and proposals) is that “We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.” Interestingly this is the only policy labeled as an “absolute requirement” probably meaning securing it would be necessary for David Cameron to advocate an “In” vote.

“We want to see powers flowing away from Brussels”

The manifesto states that the Conservatives wish to change the direction of travel in the EU and that they “want to see powers flowing away from Brussels” and end “ever closer union”. This is a broad statement but there is no detail as to what these powers would be and, given we already have a ‘Referendum lock’ on the transfer of more powers to the EU, what an end to “ever closer union” would entail beyond the removal of some symbolic wording.

Free Trade Agreements

The manifesto specifically mentions “turbo charging” EU free trade agreements and the EU/US TTIP agreement in particular. This is interesting as it could help tie a UK Coalition government into more vocal support for TTIP in the face of rumbling scare stories based on the NHS.

Safeguards for Non-Eurozone states

As well as reiterating the pledge of not joining the Euro, the manifesto states that it will be an aim to protect the rights of states that have not joined the Euro. There is no further detail on this but the danger of Eurozone caucusing is something Open Europe has pointed out on a number of occasions. Interestingly the need to safeguard the rights on Euro outs is also featured in the Labour party manifesto – making this a point of cross-party agreement.

The Role of National parliaments:

Another point where the Conservatives and Labour agree is on the idea of introducing a “red card” to allow national parliaments to block EU rules.

EU Budget (including the CAP and Structural Funds)

All UK governments say they wish to reform CAP and so far they have mostly been disappointed. While the size of the EU budget is one of the issues that drives anti-EU feeling in the UK their commitment to reform EU regional policy (structural funds) has perhaps a better chance of success. As Open Euope has argued, there is no reason for rich EU member states to fund EU regional spending within their own states – abolishing it could save money and repatriate a concrete power (ticking the box above) at the same time.

But what is not in it?

What has been left out of the manifesto is almost as interesting as what made the cut. Previous commitments to repatriate EU social policy or remove the European Court of Justice’ power over EU crime and policing measures are not in there, nor is there a commitment to scrap the Charter of Fundamental rights. Are these previous commitments left out on purpose or could they re-appear at a later date? As always there is a balance between setting out what the UK wishes to negotiate so as to build public support while preserving room for manoeuvre and not being pinned down to a specific list.

Will the list of EU reforms be enough?

The Conservatives’ plan is to renegotiate and then hold a referendum. Implicit in that is the belief that the potential renegotiation will be substantial enough firstly to allow David Cameron to advocate an “In” vote and secondly for the UK electorate to believe themselves that the EU has changed enough to wish to vote to stay in. For that to happen the ideas set out in the manifesto will both have to be fleshed out, then agreed by the other EU member states and still be credible enough for Cameron to endorse remaining in the EU. This is a three way negotiation, David Cameron, 27 other EU member states and the British people.

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