This week, the public finally learned what Britain’s relationship with the EU might look like should we vote to remain in the Union. No.10 has stressed that Tuesday’s publication is very much a ‘first draft’ ahead of further negotiations, but it has raised several key points. Among these is an ‘emergency brake’ on in-work benefits for EU migrants and a ‘red card’ that would make it easier for member states to block or scrap EU directives. Other adjustments include an opt-out from the idea of ‘ever closer union’, an extension of the single market to remove excessive financial regulation and a reassurance for non-Eurozone countries on future bail-outs.
Nathan Jones (In) and Josh Lambkin (Out) take a look at this week’s announcement and assess its likely impact on the campaign to come.
Although we don’t see eye-to-eye on much, I do have one thing in common with the euro-sceptics – a low expectation of the concessions which the Prime Minister could gain from his European negotiations. I therefore found myself in a minority of the pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Mr Cameron has managed to move the European Commission even an inch on issues which are existential to the European project.
The literature of the deal is littered with caveats, but the direction is positive. Watchers of the EU will know just how glacial the pace of change can be, and a practical “take what you can” approach is necessary (despite the Union’s many other impracticalities). This deal is not all that Mr Cameron promised, nor is it enough to satisfy many of his backbenchers, but it is a step in the right direction. It is the first concrete evidence that the growing reform movement in the EU can secure change, no matter how small or gradual. Britain’s continued membership of the EU would allow us to continue to be part of these conversations.
However, the most important metric for measuring the success of this deal is not the response from the Westminster-based commentariat (much as it might upset them to hear it), but instead how it is interpreted by the public. Most Britons will be less concerned by the granular detail of the deal, and more with the spirit of it. Mr Cameron has done all he can thus far to gain a favourable response.
However, the popular press has been less than cooperative, and Cameron’s announcement was followed by what was arguably one of the worst day’s headlines on record for this Government. The papers may not have anywhere near as much influence as they used to, or as they believe, but it would be churlish to suggest that a sustained attack from the media will not have an impact on the public’s view. Further, in light of the last election, and given the febrile criticism from the tabloids and the unenviable recent record of Britain’s pollsters, perhaps the ‘remain’ camp should be worried. Fortunately in my view, the case for Britain’s membership in Europe is plenty strong enough without any deal the Prime Minister could secure, and his movement towards one is only a net positive for the remain campaign.
A reasonable analysis of this renegotiation package has to begin with Cameron’s Bloomberg speech just over three years ago in which he promised “fundamental, far-reaching change”. This is the standard to which the British public must hold the Prime Minister and, to my mind, he has fallen short of the mark. The fact that this is just a ‘first draft’ is of little consolation to a Prime Minister who still has his work cut out to ensure that any further amendments are not detrimental to Britain.
The immediate reaction from the Eurosceptics has been predictably scathing. Sir Bill Cash has said, ‘I expected it to be as bad as it is’ and Leave.EU has concluded that the deal ‘amounts to status quo’. For those who thought that the Prime Minister was never demanding enough in the first place, this week was never going to be a time of objective analysis. But even for those looking at this week’s announcement from ‘the fence’, the reality is that Cameron has failed fairly spectacularly in securing any substantial change to the UK’s relationship with the EU. As the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg puts it, these changes are “nips and tucks not major surgery”.
The single biggest offer which the Prime Minister has been talking about for the last six months is an end to in-work benefits for migrant workers and an abolition of child benefit payments to those with children living abroad. He has ultimately achieved neither of these things and his proposed ‘red card’ system is demonstrably feeble given that it needs more than 55 per cent of the votes on the European Council for a veto.
Having been leaning towards the ‘leave side’ for most of the last three years, I was genuinely intrigued to see what Cameron’s offer would be on Tuesday (although I did not have high hopes). But if this really is the best deal we can get after months of hard negotiation from a Prime Minister who has little to lose, and with the unprecedented possibility of Britain leaving the Union, then surely we have to conclude that the EU as an institution is incorrigible and fundamentally averse to the sort of meaningful reform that is required.
This won’t matter to those who believe in union at any cost, of course, but the reality (as indicated by the polling) is that a significant part of the population might actually base their decision on the outcome of this renegotiation. The success of the leave campaign is now entirely dependent on their ability to reveal this renegotiation for the sham that it is – an argument that has been made significantly easier this week.
We have taken a straw poll of the office this week and the results are in. A further poll will be taken during the campaign and a final one at the end – stay tuned!
|17 (53%)||10 (31%)||5 (16%)|
Image credit: Reuters / The Guardian