Commentary by Danaë LAZARI
The EU referendum has been a steady fixture in British political debate for months before, and certainly since, May of this year. However, it was only early last week that David Cameron finally laid out his renegotiation demands in a letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. These demands centred on four objectives, which include: the protection of the single market for non-euro member states; the restriction of access to benefits for migrants; a (frankly rather idealistic) desire to reduce the ‘burden’ of red tape; and, of course, the exemption of the UK from the concept of ‘ever closer union’.
Although the first three objectives warrant their own examination and analysis, the concept of ‘ever closer union’ is a bit more interesting in that it has been a common phrase in many of Cameron’s speeches on the EU, but has yet to be explicitly defined. This is not necessarily Cameron’s fault – the truth is, no one has really defined ‘ever closer union’ – not even the EU itself. The term itself carries a heavy symbolism for EU member states – indeed it is the first sentence in the preamble of the Treaty that gave birth to the EU in its first form, the Treaty of Rome. The six original member states, “determined to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe (…) decided to create a European Economic Community” in 1957, and when the UK joined in 1973, they took on this responsibility as well.
Being as it is, enshrined in the founding Treaty of the EU, it is highly unlikely that Cameron will actually manage to exempt Britain from ‘ever closer union’. To do this would require a Treaty change, one of the most difficult changes to make in EU legislation, as it requires the unanimity of all member states (what was that about reducing the burden of red tape?). Officially, at least, it seems unlikely that the 27 other member states would agree to such a symbolic change for the sake of one member state who already holds more opt-outs in EU policy than most.
Knowing this, it is also unlikely that this is what Cameron actually intends to do. Since 1957, of course, the European Economic Community became the European Union, and its policies expanded from simply economic with a peace-keeping agenda, to all policy areas and the birth of independent supranational institutions such as the European Central Bank and the Court of Justice of the European Union. At this point, it seems that it is this expansion and centralisation of policy-making power that forms the unwritten definition of ‘ever closer union’. Therefore, it is more plausible that Cameron will address this dimension of ‘ever closer union’ – by seeking an exemption for Britain, he will perhaps try to secure something more visible – perhaps further opt-outs, or stronger gains for Britain in the opt-outs it already holds. It is no secret, for example, that Cameron would like to see the powers of the European Court of Human Rights decreased – and a change in any of the above legislation could easily be framed as the fulfilment of this fourth objective.
Though at first glance impossibly vague and poorly worded, the choosing of ‘an exemption for Britain to ever closer union’ is a powerful objective for Cameron’s campaign. Highly symbolic of the vision of a dominating EU that British voters objected to, whilst ambiguous enough that a small legislative victory can be framed as its fulfilment, it is almost certain that by the time the referendum does come by, Britain will have its exemption from ever closer union – in one way or another.