Cameron has promised that if voters re-elected his Conservative Party, there would be a referendum on the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union in late 2017. The British leader has also said he would work for EU reforms before the referendum.
The British government has two broad goals. First, it wants to formally opt out of the EU principle of an "ever closer union," in which member states progressively cede national sovereignty to supranational institutions. London also wants enhanced veto powers for member states on EU legislation. Second, the United Kingdom wants to introduce restrictions on immigration within the European Union. In recent months, London made several proposals to this end, which included requesting EU citizens to have a job offer before coming to the United Kingdom and introducing tougher limits on access to work and child benefits.
The United Kingdom's demands put Germany in an awkward situation. Berlin is interested in keeping London in the European Union to preserve the cohesion of the continental bloc, with Germany as its main political force. If the United Kingdom leaves, it could create a domino effect as others member states follow suit. Berlin also sees London as a key partner when it comes to protecting the single market, reducing bureaucracy and regulations in the European Union, pushing smaller EU budgets and, most important, counterbalancing France.
However, Germany also resists any measures that would change EU treaties or prevent the free movement of people within the bloc. Germany fears that negotiations over a new treaty could worsen Europe's already impending political fragmentation. Europe is divided on a long list of issues, including the management of the euro and its policy on Russia. Berlin does not want to expose the European Union to the risks of a new treaty at a time when the bloc is struggling to remain united.
Germany wants to help the United Kingdom, but its options for doing so are limited. London has yet to present the details of its proposed reforms, and it has admitted that most of its requests would require a treaty change. Some requests may be achieved through secondary legislation — changing European norms that are not enshrined in the treaties — but there is debate on which proposals could be accepted without renegotiating the treaties. In recent weeks, Cameron has said he is no longer demanding the introduction of quotas on immigration, which are illegal under existing treaties. Cameron's changing tone could prompt Germany to support London's proposal to limit immigrants' access to work and child benefits, without restricting the free movement of people in the European Union.
Questions Moving Forward
However, even if London manages to present proposals that do not involve treaty changes, it would still need political support from other EU members to reform European legislation. While Germany's support would be essential, London would still have to negotiate with several other member states. These negotiations could prove difficult, and countries such as Poland (one of the main sources of immigrants in the United Kingdom) have expressed their concern about London's intentions to restrict immigration or withdraw benefits for foreign workers.
Time is another constraint. Cameron promised to reform the European Union before the 2017 referendum. Though some reforms may be passed, they will not be passed in accordance with Cameron's schedule. 2017 will be a crucial year for the European Union because Germany and France will hold general elections. Neither Berlin nor Paris will be interested in introducing substantial reforms to the European institutional framework before the elections. Any treaty changes would only take place after 2017 and are unlikely to be implemented before the end of the decade.
Furthermore, there is a real chance that the British government will become paralyzed this year. Opinion polls show that the elections could result in a fragmented parliament, with no single party being able to form a government alone. This fragmentation would lead to lengthy coalition talks and possibly to new elections. Moreover, the Conservatives could lose power completely. Cameron's party is competing head to head with the Labour Party, whose softer views on Europe could derail the United Kingdom's plans for a referendum, especially if a different coalition takes power later in the year.
Germany is in no rush to compromise with the United Kingdom. Berlin's goal is to keep London in the European Union and help the future British government achieve some of its strategic needs regarding its EU membership. However, Merkel's government will not make any significant moves before the May elections. It will wait to see who comes out ahead in Westminster and then will begin talks with the new administration. When the negotiations resume, they will focus on ways to bring Britain closer to the European Union, but treaty change will remain off the table at least for the next three years.