On 18 and 19 February, EU Member States´ heads of government met in Brussels to discuss two main topics – migration and the British settlement, with a very minor mention of external relations (leaders urged progress in Syria and Libya) and economic governance (leaders endorsed the European Semester recommendations).
On migration, although tense discussions were expected, only official endorsement of all the actions taken so far took place. The heads of government also urged 1) full implementation of the EU-Turkey Action Plan, with a view of organizing a specific EU-Turkey meeting in March to evaluate it, 2) continuation of the plan to introduce a common EU border and coast guard and 3) full respect of the Schengen border code, together with introducing the last remaining hotspots for asylum-seeker registration. Leaders also agreed that action needs to be taken at EU level and solo activities are not to be undertaken.
More importantly, though, the leaders discussed a possible settlement with the UK. Based on the letter of PM Cameron, containing a list of demands, and on subsequent discussions by European Council President Tusk, as well as never-ending sherpa negotiations in the run-up to the summit, the leaders were able to agree rather quickly on a comprehensive offer for the UK. The settlement has a legally-binding character, addresses all 4 UK´s points, is compatible with the Treaties and will become effective once the UK informs the EU that it definitely wishes to stay (that is after the positive outcome of the In-Out referendum). On competitiveness, the EU agreed to focus more on promoting it, as well as to reduce regulatory burden and to complete the internal market. On economic governance, the eurozone will respect the interests of non-euro states and non-euro states will have a mechanism to voice concerns towards future deeper eurozone integration (although there will be no veto). On sovereignty and subsidiarity, the deal states that the UK is not committed to the “ever closer union” principle in the Treaties. Also, if 55% of votes attributed to Member State parliaments object to an EU legislative proposal on the grounds of subsidiarity, comprehensive discussions at EU level will take place and the Council agreed to discontinue the legislative process in such case, until an amendment addressing the subsidiarity issue is agreed. Finally, on the free movement issue, the European Council agreed on two measures. On in-work benefits, all EU states will have the possibility to introduce an emergency measure – during a period of 7 years all newly-entered EU migrants (i.e. workers from a different EU country) will have limited access to in-work social benefits for a period of 4 years. Concerning child benefits, the member states will have the possibility to index child benefits to the conditions of living in the EU state where the child actually resides (e.g. if a parent works in France and the child resides in Latvia, France will be able to reduce the sum of the child benefits so that the benefit-to-Latvian standard of living ratio is the same as in France, with the overall sum being lower). This measure will not be retroactive, i.e. will not automatically apply to migrants already working in a different EU state. These conditions won unanimous European Council support. A bit unexpectedly, the discussions, although they were difficult and lasted long into the night, ended “on time” and the summit itself was not prolonged.
As a result of the deal, PM Cameron announced he got what he wanted and asked the UK citizens to vote in favor of staying in the EU. He also announced that the referendum will take place on 23 June. Euroskeptics did not wait to criticize the deal, with MEP Nigel Farage stating that it was not even worth the paper it had been written on. In a more serious blow to PM Cameron, though, London mayor and popular Tory MP Boris Johnson announced he would join the Leave campaign. With the Tories split and Euroskeptics gaining ground in the EU debate, the result of the referendum is far from certain.
2nd May 2018