There are … Germans, like the finance minister, who say that treaty change will be essential to secure Germany’s objectives around the governance of the eurozone. We believe that treaty change will have to happen, not just because of Britain’s demands, but because of the German requirements around governance of the eurozone. That gives us our opportunity.
Philip Hammond, Conservative foreign secretary, speaking during a BBC Daily Politics debate on foreign policy.
If he is re-elected as prime minister, David Cameron has promised to carry out a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU. While he has been systematically vague about the nature of his demands, a similar ambiguity shrouds the question of how any such renegotiation would be carried out.
For many Conservative MPs, only a revision of the EU treaties will suffice. And the prime minister himself has hinted on more than one occasion that he will seek such a treaty change. The Conservative Party manifesto also pledges that:
“We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU.”
Meanwhile Hammond, in the recent debate on Daily Politics, suggested that there are good reasons to believe a treaty change will happen and can be used to secure British aims.
There are, however, equally good, if not better, reasons to doubt such claims. It is true that some in Berlin would, in an ideal world, like to see the treaties revised to improve the governance of the eurozone. Yet the pressures militating against any renegotiation of the founding EU treaties appear overwhelming.
First, other member states are all too aware that the British demand stems largely from political rather than substantive concerns. They have all read the various reports issued by the recent review of the balance of competences carried out by the government, and are aware that these concluded that there are few areas where the EU treaties need reform.
Second, even if negotiations were started, it is not only the British that would have demands. Eurozone members have very different ideas as to what kinds of reform would make the single currency work more effectively – from the stricter fiscal rules favoured by some northern nations such as Germany, to the debt mutualisation in the form of eurobonds demanded by their southern partners Greece and Italy.
Even beyond the management of the single currency, many member states – and this is a fact too easily forgotten in London – have reform ideas of their own. For some of them, albeit increasingly few, these involve deepening integration rather than the repatriation of power desired by the Conservatives. This variety of different demands also militates against claims that it might be possible to undertake a “quick and dirty” reform. Why, after all, would other member states undertake such a politically difficult undertaking without expecting anything tangible for themselves in return?
Ready for change? European Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND
Even if a negotiation were to be successfully concluded, it is hard to see how a new treaty could be successfully ratified. Britain is not the only country affected by the rise of insurgent parties and a growing wave of eurosceptic feeling. In some of these countries, ratification of a new treaty would imply a popular referendum. Case law and precedent in Ireland provide powerful incentives to ratify treaties via referendum. Recent EU history suggests that this would be far from straightforward – both the Nice Treaty and the constitutional treaty were rejected by referenda in some member states.
So both negotiation and ratification would pose significant problems. And even in the unlikely event that both could be achieved, it is hard to see how this could be done ahead of Cameron’s self-imposed deadline of the end of 2017. If nothing else, the fact that both France and Germany have elections in that year militates against either of them wanting to try to ratify a new European treaty anywhere near their respective election campaigns.
While the current UK government might not be alone in wanting a treaty change, the practical hurdles standing in the way of this happening are of a scale that seriously undermines any faith that this might actually be attempted.
The article rightly sets out the key difficulties with any EU treaty renegotiation and the basic process that it contains of seeking broad compromises. This clearly stands at odds with Conservative policy as it has been presented. One might also add that the process of renegotiation also needs to be agreed by a majority of member states before it can even begin, so matters might fall at that early stage.
In short, it is not for the UK alone to decide to enter the process, something that might ultimately play into the hands of those who seek British withdrawal from Europe. Such difficulties further highlight the extent to which Cameron has developed European policy primarily as a function of managing his backbenches.
The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to the May UK general election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.