Rationalising the EU debate: ‘zero plus’ renegotiation

European Union

Leading lawyer proposes new approach to EU renegotiation that could change the character of Britain’s debate from emotional to rational.

The Prime Minister has promised to renegotiate our relationship with Europe. All the main parties are committed to EU reform. Public opinion is ever more antagonistic to the status quo, with 48% of respondents to last month’s Opinium/Observer poll saying they would vote to leave the EU under present rules. Since that figure goes down to 36% in the event of a favourable renegotiation, the Prime Minister’s initiative is of great significance for our continued EU membership. But how should Britain conduct the promised renegotiation, and what should our aims be?

On Tuesday, leading EU barrister Martin Howe QC released a new pamphlet setting out the principles on which any such renegotiation should be based. Howe is an influential, moderate voice in Britain’s EU debate. His previous work, Safeguarding Sovereignty (foreword by William Hague) inspired the European Union Act 2011. His new pamphlet, Zero Plus: The Principles of EU Renegotiation,is published by the non-party-political think tank Politeia and has the potential to resolve Britain’s EU debate for once and for all, satisfying sceptics while keeping us in the EU.

While the orthodox approach to renegotiation involves going to the EU with a long list of rules and regulations from which Britain wants to opt out, Howe argues that such an approach will not work. “The longer the list of demands, the longer the list of difficulties which will have to be faced and the larger the coalition of Member States which will be built up in opposition to agreeing to the UK’s demands,” he writes. Chipping away at the current relationship just doesn’t cut it.

Instead, Howe wants the UK to start from zero. The starting point should be our position if we had no special relationship at all with the EU. Starting from this clean slate, we should rebuild our relationship with Europe by opting back in to those obligations which are mutually beneficial for Britain and the EU, but not those which, on balance, harm our national interests. Hence the characterisation of Howe’s approach to renegotiation as “zero plus”.

In effect, zero plus renegotiation would create a new category of membership, of which we would be the first member. According to Howe, this arrangement would be easier for the other EU Member States to stomach. There is a precedent for it: “special Protocols to the EU treaties exclude certain states from some aspects of membership or at least modify their obligations”. The most salient example is of course the well-established distinction between Eurozone and non-Eurozone EU members.

To those pessimists who deny that the French, for example, will allow Britain to opt for membership à la carte, Howe’s response is simple. Providing a new membership category would be in the EU’s interest. It would appeal both to “existing EU Member States who might be more comfortable with a less integrationist approach”, and to non-Members aspiring to join the EU who would “find it easier to adapt to this membership-lite,” perhaps as an interim step on the way to full membership. As such, the new deal would be about more than just Britain. It would be about modernising the EU to cope with the challenges of expansion from a small 20th Century club of rich states to today’s larger association, which the Prime Minister wants to stretch “from the Atlantic to the Urals”.

Moreover, since the zero plus approach works by starting from non-membership and building membership attributes on top of this, withdrawal would be a credible alternative in the unlikely event that the EU was unwilling to permit a new membership category despite its obvious advantages. Howe notes that – in the worst case scenario, where no agreement was reached with the EU and we had to pay tariffs to trade with it – the total cost of tariffs would be around £6bn, “almost certainly less than the UK’s current gross contribution to the EU budget”. This tallies with FCO economist Iain Mansfield’s prediction that leaving the EU would be likely to affect UK GDP by as little as 0.1%, making the debate over our continued membership a political, rather than an economic, question.

If the zero plus approach is an attractive model for renegotiation, debate should now centre on just what the new membership category should involve. This question will be much more controversial. Labour and the Lib Dems, although committed to reforming the EU, are likely to want a much more integrated membership than the Tories, who have yet to set out in detail their vision for Britain and Europe. UKIP would presumably want even less integration, while preserving free trade with other member states.

For his part, Howe envisages the new membership category being like Switzerland’s position but somewhat less integrated, for example reclaiming some control for Britain over the circumstances when it can refuse to admit other EU citizens and putting our institutions back in charge of implementing the EU single market in accordance with the treaties, rather than leaving this to the European Court and the EU’s “Qualified Majority Vote” Mechanism. These detailed proposals will face scrutiny, and no doubt challenge, from those on both sides of the EU debate.

Yet even if the devil is in the detail of what a renegotiated relationship would contain, Howe’s paper creates room for agreement among all the main parties as to what form the renegotiation should take. Even UKIP, although formally committed to taking Britain out of the EU, might change its stance to supporting EU membership if a looser membership category could be reached. Such a shift from discord to consensus would be highly beneficial for the UK’s EU debate. Instead of an emotional clash between ‘in’ and ‘out’, we would have an intellectual discussion over what elements of EU membership are in Britain’s interest.

Howe’s paper could thus redefine the debate in rational rather than emotional terms. If it does so, it would be a major step forward. It has already won the interest of the prominent Tory eurosceptic, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, who spoke at the launch party on Monday. We can only hope that those on the pro-EU side, as well as the “out-and-outers” in UKIP, will follow Howe in adopting the moderate “zero plus” approach to EU reform, even if they disagree on what Britain’s EU membership should ultimately look like.