The UK and Europe

Preventing Brexit: would the Cameron option work - if not, what else?

Jean-Claude Piris / Jan 2015

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. Photo: European Union 2015


The possibility that the UK might withdraw from the EU still looks unreal. However, it has become less unrealistic. Paradoxically, this would happen at a time when the UK has achieved most of its European policy aims: enlarging the EU without deepening it too much, keeping access to the EU's internal market while securing opt-outs on major policies, preserving control over British foreign and defence policy while pushing the EU to liberalise external trade, obtaining better control of subsidiarity, and getting rid of federalist symbols.

Mr Cameron’s preferred option will not work:

The preferred option for Mr Cameron seems to be that the UK would remain an EU Member, while obtaining a special status by revising the Treaties. For example, the UK would be allowed to continue to participate both in the internal market and in the corresponding EU decision-making process, while obtaining the right not to participate in some other EU policies. Another request might be Treaty rules specific for the UK on immigration. This will not work.

First, the timing of the procedure makes it unfeasible:

Who would be the first to ratify the revising Treaty? Should it be the UK, through organising a referendum immediately after the end of the negotations with the EU? In that case, it would be difficult for the UK government to convince the British people to vote in favour of a text which any of the other 27 Member States might reject later. The British could ask the 27 to be the first to ratify, to be sure about what they would approve in the referendum. However, one wonders how to convince the 27 to organise this sensitive procedure in the current political climate and without knowing if the British would accept the results!

Second, the substantive problems look equally insurmountable :

i) such an option would affect the EU's decision-making autonomy on issues which are at the heart of its raison d'être, and thus might put into question its existence

ii) it would be attractive for third countries, such as Switzerland or Norway, and for EU Members, such as Sweden or others, risking the opening of another existential issue

iii) the hope that such an option could be accepted is based on an overly optimistic evaluation of the UK's actual leverage: while 50% of its exports go to the rest of the EU, the rest of the EU sells only 10% of its exports to the UK. Half of the EU's trade surplus with the UK is accounted for by just two Members - Germany and the Netherlands -  while a revision of the EU Treaties would require also the positive vote of the other 25

iv) besides, Mr Cameron has added bold requests concerning the free movement of people and the non-discrimination between EU citizens, of which  the chances of success would be small.

Would another way be better to try to prevent Brexit ?

Everybody has an interest in finding a solution allowing the UK to remain a member of the EU. With smart diplomatic moves reaching this objective would not be impossible. The adoption of reasonable reforms, without revising the EU Treaties, appear to be politically and legally possible, including on the "key-issues" listed by Prime Minister Cameron in the Sunday Telegraph in March 2014[1]. Many things could be done, without changing the Treaties. It is more a question of political will of the Member States and of culture in the EU institutions. One might aim at substantive policy measures, such as a calendar in view of completing the internal market, especially in services[2], or to launch new optional cooperation policies. A “package” could also include measures aimed at improving the functioning of the institutions, by streamlining the Commission, as the current President of the Commission has begun to do, and by encouraging all institutions, not only but especially the European Parliament, to stay within the limits of their legal powers.

Other ideas might be explored, such as practical or legal ways :

a) to cut red tape and to better respect subsidiarity

b) to involve national parliaments more and better in the EU's activities

c) and, last but not least, to protect the rights of the non euro EU Member States as, in the medium term, the Eurozone might be forced to integrate further, either through an EU Treaty revision, or through a « Eurozone Treaty ».

These are objectively important issues to be looked at, rather than trying to secure changes to the EU Treaties, or claiming that the immigration of EU workers in the UK is the cause of all the problems.


[1] See my opinion on this: Cameron can skip Treaty change, says lawyer,  Financial Times, London, 6th May 2014, page 3.

[2] Services represent about 70 % of the exports of the UK.

Jean-Claude Piris

Jean-Claude Piris

January 2015

About this author ︎►

Related content