UK in the EU: MEPs debate proposed reforms ahead of referendum

What will the UK’s future in Europe be like? The day after European Council President Donald Tusk proposed a settlement in response to UK demands for reforms, MEPs discussed the issue as part of a debate on the EU summit on 18-19 February, which will be dedicated to the talks as well as the migration crisis. Most MEPs stressed that the UK staying in the EU would be better for both the country itself as well as for the other member states, but questioned some of the requested reforms.

Referendum on EU membership

Ever since joining the European Economic Community in 1973, the UK has in many ways been ambivalent about its relationship with the rest of the Union. While valuing the economic opportunities offered by the single market, it has often been reluctant about integration in other areas.

The government has now decided to renegotiate aspects of the UK’s EU membership and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave.

During the debate in plenary, Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders, representing the Council, said: “It is of paramount importance that we can continue our constructive dialogue to make the European Union work better for both the United Kingdom and all other member states.”

The minister said national governments were considering how they could meet the UK’s concerns, but: “Ultimately, it will be for the British people to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain in the Union.”

Syed Kamall, the UK chair of the ECR group, welcomed his government calling for a referendum on this: “We should never be afraid to ask the people what they want.” He said that while EU institutions pushed for further integration, people in Britain believed they joined a common market: “Unless this gap in perceptions is resolved, the UK will continue to have an ambiguous relationship with the EU”.

The UK’s demands

In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk in November, UK Prime Minister David Cameron asked for reforms concerning economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. These include for example exempting the UK from the obligation to work towards the “closer union” mentioned in the treaties, not giving migrant workers from other EU countries immediate access to in-work benefits and social housing, as well as not requiring EU countries that do not have the euro to pay for the single currency.

On 2 February, Tusk responded with a proposal for a settlement with the UK in response to Cameron’s requests.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, welcomed Tusk’s proposals: “The settlement that has been proposed is fair for the UK and fair for the other 27 member States, and also fair for the European Parliament.” He also added: “The UK benefits from more protocols and opt outs than any other member state.”

EPP leader Manfred Weber, from Germany, called Tusk’s proposal “a sound basis” for an agreement with the UK. “We want UK to stay in the EU and British people to be convinced of the fact that it is better to stay in the family,” he said, before warning: “We don’t want only a British Europe, we want a proposal that would be a Europe for all.”

However, some MEPs also questioned some of the reforms being proposed, while some rejected them all together.

Gabriele Zimmer, the German chair of the GUE/NGL group, hit out at the possibility for an opt-out from the free movement for workers in the EU, which she labelled “the idea of the social union being buried”.

Nigel Farage, the UK co-chair of the EFDD group, criticised the proposed changes. He said that Cameron’s renegotiation began with ambitious intentions such as Treaty change, control of free movement and fundamental change in Britain’s relations with the EU. “And what we got is a letter from Mr Tusk in which there is no Treaty change, no powers returned to the UK, no control over our borders. It’s really rather pathetic.”

Diane Dodds, a non-attached member from the UK, also criticised the result of the negotiations, saying it amounted to a “failure of the British Prime Minister to stand up for the United Kingdom”.

The case for Europe

Many MEPs stressed that both the EU and the UK would be better off together. Gianni Pittella, the Italian chair of the S&D group, said: “It is essential for the UK that it stays in the European Union. The UK outside the EU is weaker. We need to be able to speak clearly about the advantages that UK citizens get, because of the continued membership in the European Union.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian leader of the ALDE group, said the UK leaving the EU would lead to a loss of influence: “Europe without Great Britain doesn’t count, is not the counterweights against China, against Russia, against the United States, against America, it’s in fact Putin, who wins in this game in the end, because Putin likes a divided Europe.”

Rebecca Harms, the German co-chair of the Greens/EFA group, said: “For me it is one of these moments when we have to talk about Europe, where we came from, for example. And this is very simple to say because we came from war, we achieved peace”

Going it alone

Not all MEPs agreed on the need for the UK to stay in the EU. Marine Le Pen, the French co-chair of the ENF group, said: “The Brits had have enough of the European Union, so they want to get out of the EU. They miss their sovereignty, their ability to solve problems at a national level, they got their own way at looking at it, their own culture.”