15 April 2015

One of Jean-Claude Juncker’s aides is today quoted by The Times as saying, “No treaty change proposals are envisaged until after November 2019, the end of Juncker’s mandate as president of the commission.” Clearly this jars with the promise set out in the Conservative manifesto to hold “an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017” – Cameron has repeatedly said that he wants changes to the EU Treaties to form part of his reform agenda. Many of Cameron’s stated reform priorities do not require treaty change.

National leaders, not the Commission, will set the agenda for EU Treaty changes

While the European Commission has a near monopoly over proposing new EU legislation, this is not the case when it comes to changing the EU Treaties. The impetus for Treaty changes comes from national leaders – since, ultimately, it is the European Council of EU heads of government that decides them by unanimity. Any member state can propose a Treaty amendment.

This does not necessarily mean that securing change would be easy, but it is not in Juncker’s gift to either ‘block’ or implement it. For more on how the UK should approach renegotiation see David Frost’s recent essay for Open Europe.

So, what are the prospects for Treaty change?

This remains far from clear either way. The Times suggests that recent diplomatic talks on the future of the Eurozone – which are feeding into the so-called “four presidents’ report” due to be tabled in June – have yielded no consensus on Treaty change. It was ever thus. Previous iterations of the four presidents’ report have recommended deeper budgetary, economic and fiscal integration – despite, to put it mildly, a lack of consensus on these issues.

In fact, the Commission has previously gone even further in its ‘Blueprint for a deep and genuine EMU‘ published in 2012, which actively pushed for full on fiscal union and included a number of measures which required Treaty change in the medium term (under 5 years). Neither of these plans made much headway.

Therefore, Treaty changes to put in place lasting institutions for the Eurozone may well be longer in the making, but this does not rule out Treaty changes to address other issues, particularly if they are seen as necessary to keep the UK inside the EU. For example, the Lisbon Treaty was meant to be the last EU Treaty change, but it has been overtaken by events and we have seen a series of further Treaty amendments over the last five years.

Cameron’s 2017 referendum timetable has always been a double-edged sword

This goes to the heart of Cameron’s referendum strategy. By introducing a self-imposed deadline, he was always running the risk of not being exactly in sync with events in the rest of the EU, and the Eurozone in particular.

On the other hand, there is no better way to focus people’s minds and force EU reform onto the agenda, than to set a firm timetable for a referendum. 2017 falls in the window between key French and German elections.

As often in EU affairs, much will be decided by high politics and where there’s the political will, there’s often a way.