Voting on brexit

Voting on Brexit: The EU issues shaping the UK election

Opinion piece (EurActiv)
Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, Camino Mortera-Martinez
11 March 2015

Institutional reform: Giving national Parliaments a greater say

A greater role for national parliaments may prove popular around the EU, according to Agata Gostyńska, a Research Fellow in EU Institutions at the Centre for European Reform (CER), a pro-European think tank. But gaining support in Brussels may be more difficult, she says. 

“The Commission will be hesitant to support the idea of granting parliaments veto rights on legislative proposals," she said referring to British calls for a 'red-card' system allowing EU countries to veto proposed legislation. "The European Parliament, which still treats [national] parliaments as its rivals rather than allies, will oppose it too," she predicts.

While the principle might be of interest to the most eurosceptic member states, formal agreement on a red-card principle would in any case require a treaty change. Any such move would be highly unpopular everywhere except the UK, because the unanimity rule would almost certainly bring EU institutions to a standstill.

Instead of such blunt instruments, Gostyńska argues there is scope for more parliamentary scrutiny of the government's actions at EU level, within the existing treaties. 

“British MPs often complain the government does not share all the relevant documents with them. Some MPs would also like to have more regular parliamentary debates ahead of the European Council [of EU heads of states]. The reform of the British parliamentary scrutiny practice could boost parliamentarians’ interest in EU affairs and facilitate their greater involvement in the EU decision making process.”

Eurosceptics are also in for bitter disillusionment on the single seat campaign for the European Parliament, where their interests match those of EU federalists. Despite widespread support in the UK, Gostyńska says agreements on the issue remains highly unlikely.

Indeed, when it comes to treaty change, unanimity is required and Paris will not doubt wield its veto. “France is vitally interested in keeping Strasbourg as one of the Parliament’s seats and will oppose any attempts to move plenary sessions to Brussels,” she says.

Economic reforms and trade

The EU has long been considered in the UK as an overbearing influence, with many arguing that the benefits of the EU single market for goods and services are drowned out by excessive red tape and regulation (even if the British press is keen on making them up).

Such compromises may well involve limiting access to the benefit system for new migrants says Camino Mortera-Martinez, Research Fellow in Justice and Home Affairs at the Centre for European Reform. 

“Germany is already discussing a law to limit the time that EU citizens can stay in the country looking for a job, which is very much in line with Cameron’s approach to EU job-seekers. However, any reforms would still meet the resistance of the European Parliament and the European Commission.”

Home affairs, security and defence

The ruling Conservative party had initially warned that Britain would opt-out from all EU matters related to Justice and Home Affairs (JHA). Since the 2009 adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, those matters - where Britain used to have a veto - are now subject to qualified majority voting in the Council, with the European Parliament now upgraded to a full co-legislator role.

Britain, which does not participate fully in the implementation of certain JHA measures, threatened to opt-out entirely from EU cooperation on police and criminal matters, saying it wanted to regain its national sovereignty on those matters.

UK sources said Britain had problems with the European arrest warrant, the Schengen Information System, and some EU agencies such as Europol, Eurojust, along with a few others.

The Centre for European Reform, a British think tank, warned the decision would have "major implications" for Britain's security as the opt-out would make it more difficult for British police to conduct international investigations and convict criminals abroad.

These warnings have not gone unheard. At the end of 2014, the UK opted out and then immediately back again into 35 Justice and Home Affairs measure, including the European Arrest Warrant, Europol and Eurojust. 

Camino Mortera-Martinez, a research fellow on justice and home affairs at the Centre for European Reform (CER), says the debate has now moved on.

“Even the Conservatives seem to be aware of the importance of police and judicial co-operation to fight cross-border crime," she says. However, there is a growing exhaustion towards the British 'pick and choose' approach to judicial cooperation.

After the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the current tendency seems to be more intelligence sharing, not less, said Mortera-Martinez. "UKIP’s argument on damaging the special relationship of the UK with the US is not likely to be accepted by other European actors, who value the UK’s leading role in the fight against international crime,” she said.

Earlier this year the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, reiterated his desire for an EU army. The call was resolutely rejected in the UK. 

Camino Mortera-Martinez and Agata Gostyńska are research fellows at the Centre for European Reform.