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Cameron’s call to arms on European reform

David Cameron has finally nailed his colors to the mast, announcing the package of reforms which he is seeking in the EU renegotiation process. As the ECFR's Susi Dennison writes, there's little to get excited about.

There were no surprises in the content of what the UK prime minister said. The top lines were protection of non-eurozone countries' interests in institutional architecture; completion of the single market, and boosting competitiveness through reducing regulatory burdens on businesses; carving the UK out of the commitment to ever closer union in the treaties, increasing the role of national parliaments in EU legislation and changing the framing legislation for the EU charter of Fundamental Rights in UK legislation; and finally restricting EU migrants' access to in-work benefits such as tax credits, through minimum periods of residence before qualification.

The European Council on Foreign Relation's research over the past few months has shown that these demands are achievable from the perspective of other EU states. Completing the single market, and reducing regulatory burdens on business enjoy broad support across the EU, and represent the extension of existing EU commitments. Reaction around Europe to UK Chancellor George Osbourne's speech last week in Berlin to the German BDI (Federation of German Industries - the ed.), which laid out the case for protection of non-eurozone countries' interests, reiterated that eurozone member states understand UK concerns on this and want to find a way of accommodating them.

With the exception of some more hardline member states such as Spain, increasing the role of national parliaments is quite popular in an EU where so many governments are under pressure from eurosceptic forces - or indeed as in the recent case of Poland, with the recent success of the PiS party in the elections, are now governed by them - and democratic accountability is an important antidote to this pressure.


Susi Dennison

Though the UK hasn't played a big part in the European response to the refugee crisis, counterintuitively, this doesn't appear to have undermined the willingness of other European partners to support it in the renegotiation process. In some ways it is the reverse: the sense of threat from refugee inflows that other member states are feeling appears to have made them more sympathetic to UK concerns in the field of migration, and the need to find ways to accommodate UK demands on restricting migrants access to in work benefits - as long as the basic principle of freedom of movement remains sacrosanct.

There will no doubt be bumps in the road between now and the likely agreement of the reform package at the European Council on December 17 and 18. But finding an accommodation with European partners was never likely to be the difficult part for Cameron in the path he has laid out in the run-up to the referendum.

As the final warning section of Cameron's speech this morning reminded, the real challenges were always at home - finding a package which is all at once good for Europe, meaty enough to satisfy the hardline anti-Europeans in the Conservative party at home, and exciting enough to get the middle ground of the British electorate to care enough about the process to come out on referendum day and vote. One of the biggest dangers in the upcoming referendum is a low turnout, since, to put it bluntly, eurosceptics in the UK care far more about the whole thing than europhiles and the undecided.

As of today, Cameron has laid his cards on the table and called in no uncertain terms to his European colleagues around the Council table to help him to achieve this over the coming month. But what is really at stake is in the UK's choice that comes after this deal. Cameron needs to bring a set of reforms back to London as a basis on which to fight to keep the UK in the EU, not only for its own sake but also as a means to two ends which may constitute his real political legacy: keeping Scotland in the UK, and keeping the UK engaged with the world. The hard reality is that if Cameron does not win these upcoming fights, the fabric of the UK and the UK's global role will be irreversibly diminished. And in this final phase of the fight, there will be little that friends around Europe can do to help.

Susi Dennison is Co-Director for European Power and Senior Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.