It seems every week now there is a story about France and/or Germany ruling out EU treaty change and thereby putting pay to David Cameron’s EU reform push before it has even really begun. While this makes for good headlines, the reality is much more nuanced.
Take today’s example: A leaked preliminary draft of a Franco-German paper on Eurozone reform reported by Le Monde and picked up by the Guardian, stated that in the short term (the next few years) the countries will focus on working within the EU treaties, which has been seen as a blow to Cameron’s reform push.
There are some important points to keep in mind though. Firstly, this is not actually a shift in the Franco-German position. They have long said that they will consider treaty change in the medium and long term but do not see it as a short-term priority in the Eurozone. This latest document again suggests the need for treaty change to put the Eurozone on a sounder footing in the longer term. One of the biggest challenges of Cameron’s reform programme was always going to be lining up his referendum timeline with that of the Eurozone. This remains a challenge but it has not become any more difficult in the recent days or weeks.
Secondly, much of this is background noise. Cameron is about to embark on his reform tour of European capitals and will discuss EU reform in more detail with the French and German leaders later this week. Until the discussions about reforms get more specific, it is premature to rule in or out the legal means to achieve them. There have been some equally positive signs from member states – such as German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s comments last week stressing his openness to an agreement.
Thirdly, treaty change is not a black and white issue. There are a number of options, from a full treaty change to a political agreement that incorporates a change in the future via a legally binding decision among EU leaders and protocol. In between, there are plenty of other options, such as limited or technical changes to the treaties. Schäuble indicated German willingness to consider a range of options and stated 'there is a big margin for manoeuvre'. Much of the concern is about the potential need for referendums in a number of countries. If these can be avoided, which some options would do, then this would be another reason to be open to ideas.
The UK’s most important objective should be achieving substantive reform which makes a change in direction from ever closer union, dominated by the Eurozone, towards a multi-tier EU built on the single market which allows members greater flexibility to suit their needs. The next question is how this is given legal grounding in EU legislation or in the treaties. As we saw in the Eurozone crisis – where members went from ruling out bailouts to using a limited treaty change to set up a bailout fund worth hundreds of billions in the space of a year – in the EU where there is a will, there is a way.
Raoul Ruparel is Co-Director at Open Europe