17 December 2015
Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
Tonight, the European Council (heads of Member State governments) will discuss David Cameron’s EU reform proposals. The Council will not reach a deal, but will have a political discussion centred around the Prime Minister’s letter published on 10 November and the response by European Council President Donald Tusk, which was sent to EU Heads of State and Government last Monday. The endgame is to try and reach a deal at the European Council on 18-19 February, paving the way for the Prime Minister to announce details of the planned EU Referendum – possibly as early as June, although autumn is considered a more likely scenario.
The UK’s proposed reforms will be discussed in the context of the many challenges currently facing the EU, such as the security threat and response post the Paris attacks, progress on Economic and Monetary Union, the EU response to migration and the refugee crisis, and the completion of the Single Market.
What’s in the Prime Minister’s baskets?
A Research Service blog post in October 2015 provided an outline of the areas in which the UK Government is seeking EU reform. The Prime Minister’s recent letter is essentially a further exposition of these themes, rather than the detailed means or legal proposals for achieving these outcomes. In summary, these areas – which have been referred to in press reports as “baskets” – are:
- Economic governance;
- Sovereignty, and
In terms of the immigration basket, the Prime Minister has called for measures to be taken to reduce the number of people coming from the EU to the UK. These should include limiting benefit payments to EU immigrants until they have worked in the UK for four years, and stopping the practice of sending child benefit overseas.
President Tusk’s response to this letter echoes a point made by a number of prominent EU politicians: that immigration is the most contentious of the areas in which the UK Government is seeking reform. He describes these proposals as being the “most delicate”, and likely to give rise to “substantial political differences” that will need to be resolved before an agreement can be brokered.
The Polish Government has been a vocal critic of the Prime Minister’s proposal to restrict benefit payments to EU immigrants. Press reports state that, though the Polish Prime Minister has said she could agree with British reforms proposed in the first of the three baskets, the issue of benefits – which could affect the many Polish people living in the UK – has proved a sticking point.
On the issue of sovereignty, the Prime Minister has called for an enhanced role for national parliaments in the legislative process. He has proposed a new arrangement whereby a group of national parliaments can veto legislative proposals that they disagree with. There is no mention of the role of sub-national parliaments (the EU term for below member-state legislatures such as the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament) in this process, inviting the question as to how the UK Parliament could speak for the whole UK on devolved issues – such as agriculture – where it has little competence outside of England.
How has the Welsh Government been involved in the EU reform process?
The UK Government’s EU reform negotiations are currently the subject of scrutiny by both the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and the House of Lords’ Select Committee on the European Union. The Lords Committee has sought the views of the UK’s devolved administration and legislatures on this issue, holding sessions in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh.
On 19 October 2015, the Lords Committee took evidence from a number of Welsh stakeholders – including members of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and the First Minister – in the Senedd. The First Minister was critical of the degree of consultation undertaken by the UK Government, stating that the Welsh Government had not been part of the process of establishing a UK position, and that he had learned of the UK negotiating stance “through the pages of the Sunday Telegraph”.
However, it is understood that the First Minister met the Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, in London earlier this week for a private meeting ahead of the EU Summit, and that the Minister for Europe, the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, has been in contact with the Minister for Finance and Government Business Jane Hutt AM in recent weeks to discuss the EU reform agenda.
The UK Government has pledged to hold a referendum on membership of the EU by 2017. Although David Cameron has stated his desire to campaign for continued EU membership, this has always been conditional on a successful conclusion to reform negotiations. Going by President Tusk’s comments, there are some big political hurdles to cross before such a conclusion can be reached.
Welsh Labour launched its campaign to stay in the EU on Monday. Lord Hain, who is managing the campaign, claimed that an EU exit would damage Wales more than any other part of the UK and that Brexit would risk 200,000 jobs in Wales, though these claims have been countered. The First Minister has said that his arguments for retaining membership are primarily economic, suggesting that this will be the key plank of Welsh Labour’s pro-EU argument.
The debate is heating up prior to the referendum. Although perhaps the big picture won’t change, depending on the outcome of the Prime Minister’s negotiations, the sands will have shifted by the time the vote takes place.