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Miliband, Cameron and the Chances of EU Treaty Change

12/03/2014 15:30 GMT | Updated 12/05/2014 10:59 BST

Ed Miliband's announcement that the Labour Party would only commit to an in/out EU referendum in the event of major EU treaty change sets up a significant fault line between his party's policy and that of the Conservatives. Not simply around a specific timetable for an EU vote but in making a fundamentally different calculation concerning the likelihood of other member states agreeing to change EU treaties in the near future.

David Cameron's January 2013 Bloomberg speech committed the Conservative party to an in/out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. This was predicated on the basis that the crisis in the eurozone was likely to force other member states to push for a new treaty to underpin the new banking union and other initiatives. This would then have allowed Cameron to use the process to renegotiate the relationship between the EU and its member states in line with British reform demands, or at a minimum achieve some changes for the UK's own relationship with the EU. This would have needed to be done ahead of his proposed 2017 referendum. Yet the prospects of a major EU-wide structural change on this timeline, never that strong to begin with, have continued to recede over the past year.

The recent visits of President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel to the UK have highlighted the reticence of other member states towards treaty change, despite the fact that the UK Government had initially placed its hopes on Germany leading calls for just such a change. Berlin and a number of other capitals are indeed exploring options for some limited legal change. However it is becoming clear that most member states don't want to try to pass another major institutional reform in the near future, given the public mood, particularly when some would be required to hold their own domestic referendums.

The political and diplomatic challenges the UK faces ahead of a potential 2017 referendum (as well as some of the major ideas for EU reform) are set out in Renegotiation, Reform and Referendum: Does Britain have an EU future?, published last month by the Foreign Policy Centre. There are a number of interesting debates going on around Europe about how the union develops to face the challenges of democratic accountability and austerity. The Dutch are trying to put the brakes on Commission activism through their subsidiary review, the Germans may support some reform of the working time directive and other limited opt-outs and even France claim to be willing to make minor adjustments. But as Chancellor Merkel stressed in her recent speech to the UK Parliament there is an appetite for reform but not for the kind of radical transformation that a number of activists in the UK are proposing on a tight 2017 timescale.

As the FPC publication indicates, some ideas such as providing a 'red card' for national parliaments working together to halt future Commission-initiated legislation are gaining traction around the EU, building on the existing underperforming 'yellow card' procedure. But there is little appetite for such measures to be applied to existing legislation or for the return of a national veto to all legislation (both old and new) that a number of UK Eurosceptics are calling for. Similarly, other EU leaders have indicated a willingness to explore evidence-led changes to access to welfare but ideas that challenge the fundamental principal of freedom of movement, such as a cap on the number of EU migrants, have been ruled out. It is likely to prove impossible to achieve unanimity across the EU in favour of radical shifts on divisive issues from employment and social law to environmental protection.

A number of key transformations demanded by UK eurosceptics will require full treaty change. But paradoxically the more the UK advocates for treaty change the less likely it may be to happen, as it will be hard to sell such demands to the eurozone if it is being seen to be used by the UK for its own ends. As a result even leading Eurosceptic advocate of renegotiation Andrea Leadsom MP conceded at the launch event for Renegotiation, Reform and Referendum, that full treaty change may well not take place ahead of a 2017 UK referendum.

Given Cameron's 2017 plans it is not just the political debates in other EU member states that the UK is relying on to go its way. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the EU-US trade deal that could bring up to 9.75% growth to the UK, forms a major plank in the Prime Minister's economic argument about the benefits of staying a member of the EU. However President Obama's bid for fast-track trade approval has so far been rejected, leaving the deal open to congressional wrangling that could lead to major delays in the project.

Labour's decision to wait until there is substantial treaty change before holding an in/out referendum and their open admission that this may well not take place in the next Parliament draws attention to the increasingly unlikely chance of EU leaders making such a move before a 2017 UK vote.