On 6 October 2015, as the Conservative Party Conference was in full swing in Manchester, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) gave a significant boost to the Conservative government through two rulings validating current UK actions under question by the EU. Both cases had contributed to the toxic #Brexit debate, which is currently ongoing in the run up to the UK referendum on whether to continue as a member of the EU – due to occur by the end of 2017.
The ECJ announcement (Thierry Delvigne v Commune de Lesparre-Médoc and Préfet de la Gironde) on a French case, concluded that member states can unilaterally maintain bans on citizens participating in European elections as long as this ban is in proportion to the crime committed. The UK currently has a blanket ban on prisoners voting in any elections, domestic or European, and has rebuffed repeated pressure to alter this law in defiance of ECJ judges.
The second announcement regards so-called benefit tourism – the idea that EU nationals, and migrants more widely, travel to a particular nation not to work, but simply to benefit from that nation’s welfare state, usually via child benefits and tax credits – which has been a clear line of attack when discussing EU reform. The Advocate General Cruz Villalon recommended that the ECJ should dismiss the case brought by the European Commission as previous ECJ case-law “has traditionally associated entitlement to social benefits on an equal basis with nationals of the host Member State with the requirement that the claimant must be ‘legally’ resident in the territory of that State.” Although not a legally binding document, Villalon’s recommendation is often a strong precursor to any ECJ decision and strengthens David Cameron’s hand within his own party.
The timing of these two announcements could not be more perfect for David Cameron and the Conservative Party. Coming as it did midway through a keynote speech by Theresa May, Home Secretary, where she explicitly stated: “There are people who need our help and there are people who are abusing our good will and I know whose side I’m on” in direct reference to benefit tourism, and one day before David Cameron addresses his party where his EU renegotiation strategy will take centre stage, these announcements will reassure party euro sceptics that a successful renegotiation is achievable.
One of the leading gambits in Cameron’s renegotiation strategy is to limit the capacity of migrants claiming work benefits for four years after arriving within the UK, while the long feud over prisoner voting rights has repeatedly blighted any Conservative response to a positive drive for continued EU membership with the party faithful. However, with the Delvigne case, prisoners with limited sentencing may be able to challenge the UK’s blanket ban if they feel their sentence is not “proportionate to the aim pursued”, which will be interesting to follow.
With these two decisions, Cameron has guaranteed himself breathing room on the EU renegotiation ahead of his Party speech (7 October 2015). His soft power, which has been constantly questioned since his 2013 Bloomberg speech stating that a referendum would take place if he gained a parliamentary majority in the 2015 election, is proven. Two of the biggest anti-EU arguments have been distinguished – if only for the short term. And any future attack on his ability to negotiate favourable returns for the UK before 2017 can be dismissed, with these two decisions as case studies in his ability to work with the EU and its key players.