The EU Council President Donald Tusk proposed a deal for Britain that copes with all the demands raised by the British government, including the controversial issue of welfare – or not – for foreign EU citizens working in the UK. The question is if it’s good enough to convince the British people to stay in the EU.

Ahead of the British referendum on EU membership, likely to be held in June, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has asked for a new deal with Europe. He wants to make sure that Britain is not discriminated vis-à-vis euro countries, is not forced to integrate further with the EU, that national parliaments get more powers to block European legislation and that Britain is allowed to restrict social benefits for EU migrants working in the UK.

On Tuesday, February 2, the EU Council President Donald Tusk put forward a draft proposal to meet the British demands.

Four year emergency brake on welfare

On the most controversial issue, welfare, the draft suggests a gradual four year brake on benefits for EU workers in the UK and decreased benefits for children of EU workers not living in Britain. However, this should not be applied retroactively, but only concernn EU citizens starting to work in the UK after the legislation is in place.

Concerning national legislation powers, Tusk suggests a red card to be used on proposed EU legislation if at least 55 percent of the votes in national parliaments call for it. The draft also gives assurances that the talk of an ever closer union in the EU treaty does not mean political integration literally and it also says that rights of non-euro countries are respected and that they should not have to pay for euro area crisis management.

‘Real progress’

The proposal does not include any treaty change, which Cameron has called for. Nor does it give the UK veto powers over euro area decisions. Still, Cameron described the proposal as “real progress” and “a substantial change.”

It also got some support from capitals across the EU, including from Eastern European countries, where governments have been concerned that their citizens would be discriminated if they didn’t have access to British welfare when working in the UK.

Poland is one of the EU member states mostly concerned and Cameron will go to Warsaw on Friday (February 5) to convince the Polish government to approve the deal. (audio in Polish)

“From what we know, these proposals will not touch the Poles already living in Great Britain. These proposals aim at the future, so all the Poles who already live in the UK will not be subject to any restrictions. This is the situation for today, but about the details we will be able to speak in a few days, maybe when Mr. Cameron will come to Poland, i.e. this Friday,” the Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said in an interview with the Polish Euranet Plus member Polskie Radio.

Fair deal for all

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, which has been part in writing the proposal, said in the European Parliament on Wednesday (February 3), that this was a fair deal for all.

“The settlement that has been proposed is fair for the UK and fair for the other 27 member states,” Juncker said.

“It recognises that if the United Kingdom considered that it is now at the limits of its level of integration then that is fine. At the same time, it makes clear that other member states can move towards a deeper degree of integration as they see fit.”

Enough to get Yes in British referendum?

Fabian Zuleeg, head of the Brussels based think tank European Policy Centre, thinks that with this proposal, the EU has done what it can to keep the UK in the European family. But he is not sure that it will be enough to convince the British public when they decide on EU membership later this summer. The outcome of the referendum depends to a large extent on the campaign for the Yes, he argues.

According to Zuleeg, the British citizens will not understand what they have been offered.

“Absolutely not. The citizens are very confused by all these technical details, they will see the headlines. And in the end it comes down to the credibility of those who are arguing one way or the other. And I think there it depends a lot on how well Cameron performs in the campaign,” Zuleeg explained.

At Open Europe, a think tank with similar views as David Cameron’s ruling party, they question if the proposal is generous enough.

Pieter Cleppe, head of Open Europe’s Brussels office, is absolutely certain that Cameron will ask for more.

“We had some poling done before Christmas, which showed that if Cameron would get all his desired reforms, close to two thirds of UK citizens would vote to stay in. Of course, the question is what if he only gets, let’s say 55 percent of what he’s been demanding, if he doesn’t get much more than this, I do think it’s a question mark if the UK public will vote to stay,” Cleppe said.

The proposal will be discussed and decided upon by the EU heads of state or government in a summit on February 18-19. Then it will be up to the British citizens to decide whether this is good enough for them to stay in the EU – or leave.

Or as EU Council President Tusk put it after presenting his proposal: “To be, or to not be together, that is the question”.

  • Author: Andreas Liljeheden, Euranet Plus News Agency