Government Approaches to EU negotiations

Nick Clegg explores possible approaches that the Government could take towards EU negotiations.

By Nick Clegg, Nov 16, 2016 10

A powerful and consistent precedent has been set by successive UK governments whereby they lay out an approach to Parliament in advance of EU treaty negotiations. This is an overview of the White Papers and motions published in advance of EU Intergovernmental Conferences (IGCs), which are the forums used to discuss and agree EU treaty changes.

While the negotiation of Brexit is not an identical process to the negotiation of a new treaty, the similarities are strong: big multilateral negotiations with significant public policy implications and the government has ambitions for the outcome. This shows why the current government has nothing to fear from being more open about the approach they will take with the Brexit negotiations. The public, and Parliament, can be informed of a direction without the government’s hand becoming exposed or tied in anyway.

Maastricht Treaty (1991), Conservative Government

On 20th November 1991, John Major brought before the House a motion that set the Government’s negotiating strategy for an agreement at the forthcoming European Council at Maastricht. He opened the debate by stating the motion, “endorses the constructive negotiating approach adopted by Her Majesty's Government.” It went on to outline the following priorities:

  • Work to avoid the development of a federal Europe
  • Enable the UK to exert the greatest influence on the economic evolution of the Community while preserving the right of Parliament to decide at a future date whether to adopt a single currency.
  • On issues of Community competence, concentrate the development of action on those issues which cannot be handled more effectively at national level. In particular, avoid intrusive Community measures in Social areas which are matters for national decision
  • Develop a European security policy compatible with NATO and co-operation in foreign policy which safeguards the UK’s national interests
  • Increase the accountability of the Commission
  • Enhance the rule of law in the Community including improved implementation, enforcement and compliance with Community legislation
  • Improve co-operation between European governments in the fight against drugs, terrorism and cross-border crime

Amsterdam Treaty 1996, Conservative Government

Document: A partnership of nations: the British approach to the European Union Intergovernmental Conference, March 1996

A White Paper presented to Parliament that outlined the British Approach to the EU Intergovernmental Conference 1996.

In the White Paper, the Government outlined the IGC agenda and then discussed what their approach was on each sixteen issues.

Following the publication, a debate was held in parliament, where the government set out their priorities more concisely:

"First is subsidiarity. That is the key to ensuring that the Union concentrates single-mindedly on doing what needs to be done at a European level, and only that. The United Kingdom introduced that vital concept into the treaty of Maastricht. The principle has been developed at subsequent European Councils. It is having the effect that we intended, but more clarity is needed in the treaty. We shall therefore make proposals at the intergovernmental conference to entrench subsidiarity still further in the treaty.

Secondly, we are concerned at the way in which certain directives have been used or may be used for purposes that were never intended by the Governments who agreed to them--for example, health and safety articles that may be used for social policy, or fiscal measures that may be added on to single market or environmental proposals. Another example is the common fisheries policy, where the practice of "quota hopping" is preventing fishing communities from enjoying a secure benefit from national quotas, thereby undermining their entire purpose. The Government do not believe that directives, once enacted, are irreversible, and will press for treaty amendment if that proves to be the best way of ensuring that the original purpose of those directives is fully respected.

Thirdly, the President of the Commission, Jacques Santer, has said that the Union should do "less but better". Britain agrees. The volume of new legislative proposals being put forward has been falling rapidly, with only proposals for principal legislation expected in 1996 compared with 61 in 1990, but there is also an urgent need to improve the quality of European legislation, and we shall be pressing for a range of measures to achieve that, including much wider consultation of interested parties via the Commission before proposals are put forward, and the automatic withdrawal of proposals that are not adopted by the Council within a given time.

Fourthly, national Parliaments are the primary focus of democratic legitimacy in the Union. The House, like the Government, rightly attaches importance to the role of”

Nice Treaty 2000, Labour Government

Document - IGC: Reform for Enlargement. The British Approach to the European Union Intergovernmental Conference, February 2000:

Ahead of the IGC which led to the Nice Treaty in 2000, which was put in place to prepare the EU for enlargement, the government produced a detailed outline of the issues to be negotiated and their approach.  It states:

(Page 16) “(In this paper) We set out our opening position and, where appropriate, the criteria by which we shall judge the eventual outcome.”

Pages 16-24 of paper go through the major areas of discussion and the government’s position, including:

  • Reweighting of votes in the council and qualified majority voting
  • Commission role and size
  • Reform of the European Court of Justice

Following the publication, a debate was held in parliament, where the government set out their priorities more concisely:

“For the United Kingdom, the most pressing of these reforms is to increase the share of our vote in the Council of Ministers. France, Germany and Britain contain a majority of the population of the European Union, but together have only a minority of the votes in the Council. After enlargement, they will not even be a blocking minority. We will be seeking a fairer voting system in the Council of Ministers that gives more democratic recognition to the population of Britain.

The second institutional reform required by enlargement is a limit on the growth of the Commission. If all 12 countries were to join the European Union under the present rules, we would have more than 30 commissioners. It would be a challenge for such a large Commission to function efficiently as a single cohesive body--nor is it easy to see what jobs they could all do.

As a first step in containing the size of the Commission, we are prepared to consider that the larger countries should retain only one commissioner. That would enable the smaller countries to retain their own commissioners, at least through the first wave of enlargement. However, I stress that we see these two measures as a package. The larger member states cannot be expected to give up their second commissioners if they are not given a larger weight of votes in the Council of Ministers.

The third area for institutional reform is the balance between unanimity and majority voting. There will be double the risk of decisions being blocked if there are twice as many countries round the table with a veto. Those decisions that are blocked may well be in Britain's national interest and may concern matters on which we want agreement.”

Lisbon Treaty (The Reform Treaty) – 2007, Labour Government

Document - White Paper July 2007

A mandate for The Reform Treaty was agreed by the European Council in June 2007. Ahead of that meeting the government set out their “red lines”.

These red lines were reiterated in a July 2007 White Paper on The British Approach to the European Union Intergovernmental Conference:

(Page 7) “In the run-up to the 2007 June European Council, the UK argued that the EU needed a new amending Treaty without constitutional characteristics. The Government also set out preconditions for agreement on a new Treaty.

These four conditions were:

  • protection of the UK’s existing labour and social legislation;
  • protection of the UK’s common law system, and our police and judicial processes
  • maintenance of the UK’s independent foreign and defence policy;
  • and protection of the UK’s tax and social security system.”

In addition, the Government wanted to clearly establish that national security is a matter for Member States.

These remain our guiding principles for the IGC, which needs to follow precisely the terms of the Mandate agreed at the June European Council.”

The White Paper also confirmed the role that Parliament would play in the process:

(Page 7) “The Reform Treaty will have to be ratified by all Member States according to their own constitutional procedures. In the UK, all Treaties, including EU Treaties, are laid before Parliament, which has the right to examine and debate them in detail. An Act of Parliament will give legal effect to the Treaty. So Parliament must be satisfied that a Treaty is in the national interest before that Treaty can be implemented in national law.

Throughout the process, the Government will also keep Parliament informed in terms of scrutiny, evidence sessions and debates.”

It is also worth noting that prior to the European Council Meeting, the government set out its approach to the future of the EU a number of times:

Geoff Hoon, Written Ministerial Statement, 5 December 2006

Foreign Office Report, Prospects for the European Union in 2007, January 2007:

These outlines expose the weakness of the current government’s position. It is absolutely right that the Prime Minister lay out her government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, and the argument that it would undermine their negotiating strategy is unfounded.

Parliament has a critical role to play in scrutinising the Brexit process in order to ensure that the UK get the best deal possible, and current attempts to undermine that role will only lead to a haphazard Brexit which does not work for the British people.

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