To understand yesterday’s EU deal, one has to begin at the beginning – with ten renegotiation aims that David Cameron began to set out in opposition and develop in government. These were:
Some of these aims fell by the wayside before the last election (such as taking back control of social and employment laws) and others made it into last May’s Conservative Manifesto. The most important one was the last – changing the EU treaties before a referendum, since only treaty change can guarantee any agreement binding effect. I have previously set out on this site how these were cut back, post-election, for the actual negotiation that concluded yesterday.
In January, David Cameron set out his aims for it in the Commons as follows:
“I have set out the four areas where Britain is seeking significant and far-reaching reforms: on sovereignty and subsidiarity, where Britain must not be part of an “ever-closer union” and where we want a greater role for national Parliaments; on competitiveness, where the EU must add to our competitiveness, rather than detract from it, by signing new trade deals, cutting regulation and completing the single market; on fairness for countries inside and outside the eurozone, where the EU must protect the integrity of the single market and ensure there is no disadvantage, discrimination or additional costs for a country like Britain, which is not in the euro and which in my view is never going to join the euro; and on migration, where we need to tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and deliver changes that ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain.”
In practice, this boiled down to four main items:
So let’s turn, with the help of the useful Daily Telegraph and Guardian snap guides – see here and here – to what the Prime Minister originally demanded and what he actually got. For a detailed analysis, see Christopher Howarth’s magisterial article on this site this morning.
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The emergency brake
This was originally to be a brake on migration itself, not access to benefits. So that it became one on access to benefits only (based on the popular but misconceived view that they are a major draw for migrants) was a climbdown.
Furthermore, the control of the brake will be in the hands of the European Commission, not the British Government – a second climbdown.
The Conservative Manifesto said that “we will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.” But the deal struck agrees a gradual reduction in benefits – a third climbdown.
The brake itself will be able to last, if used, for a maximum of seven years. This is longer than the five years that the Visigrad group of EU leaders pushed for but shorter than Cameron’s original bid of 13 years.
The manifesto said that “If an EU migrant’s child is living abroad, then they should receive no child benefit, no matter how long they have worked in the UK and no matter how much tax they have paid.”
However, the terms of the draft deal said that child benefit should be paid to the children of EU migrants living abroad, though at local rates – unquestionably a climbdown.
And the deal itself says that it should be paid at these rates only to new claims (a second climbdown) and, furthermore, these new rates for new claims will not apply until 2020 – a third climbdown under this heading.
Protection for non-Eurozone countries
The manifesto said that “We will protect our economy from any further integration of the Eurozone…we will not let the integration of the Eurozone jeopardise the integrity of the Single Market or in any way disadvantage the UK.”
The draft deal proposed that an unspecified number of non-euro states could take objections to measures proposed by Eurozone states to the Council of Ministers, which would “do all in its power” to engineer a “satisfactory solution” – and seek to facilitate “a wider basis of agreement in the Council”.
The deal itself says that a single non-euro state can take objections to the council – an advance for the Prime Minister. However, there is, as in the draft deal, no guarantee that objections will be sustained, or indeed what will happen if there is deadlock on the council.
The Red Card system
The manifesto said that “we want national parliaments to be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation.”
The deal proposes that a minimum of 14 parliaments within the EU can raise a red card against a new law if each does so within a three month period. So the Prime Minister has his red card plan written into it.
However, the yellow card system, on which the red card one is based, has only been used twice. In opposition, William Hague dismissed the idea, saying that “even if the European Commission proposed the slaughter of the first-born it would be difficult to achieve such a remarkable conjunction of parliamentary votes.”
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There is much else in the deal, but three points stand out clearly.
First, the tale of both Cameron’s original renegotiation idea and his recent proposals, resulting in yesterday’s deal, is essentially a story of many steps backwards over time, including at the summit, and a few forward at the latter, too. If a man takes more steps backwards than forward, in which direction has he moved?
Second, as has been conceded, the European Parliament has the capacity to unpick the deal. In the vivid phrase of an EU official, MEPs “can be like monkeys with guns”.
Third, any aspect of the deal can be overturned by the European Court, since it is not enshrined in Treaty Change. Ominously, the Guardian’s Brussels correspondent tweeted post-deal: “EU negotiator confident Cameron’s terms will be challenged in court”.
So what does the tale of this negotiation and this summit tell us? ConHome believes as follows.
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There is a case for Britain leaving the EU, which this site holds and which has been put on it many times. There is also a case for Britain staying in the EU, which the Prime Minister made towards the end of his summit press conference, and put rather well.
What there is not is a case for Britain staying in the EU on the basis of this deal. When Cameron sought to suggest otherwise yesterday evening, his claims collapsed as fast as he made them. Let’s consider three examples from that post-summit statement.
But the Council said less than two years ago that “the concept of ever-closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries…respecting the wish of those who do not want further integration”. This was attested to by the Prime Minister himself, who told the Commons afterwards that “we broke new ground, with the Council conclusions stating explicitly that ever-closer union must allow for different paths of integration for different countries and, crucially, respect the wishes fo those such as Britain that do not want further integration”.
But he has previously acknowledged that Britain already has an opt-out from the single currency.
This is simply untrue.
There is more. But the Prime Minister is relying on most voters being turned off by the detail, and there is little point in giving more when a few words will serve. They are those of the stupendously indiscreet Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania’s President, who tweeted before the deal yesterday that it would be a “face saving and face lifting exercise”.
When Leader of the Opposition, Cameron had a phrase that he hurled at Gordon Brown, and which stuck. “He’s treating people like fools,” he would say. But in puffing this hollow negotiation, it is the Prime Minister himself who now is treating people like fools.
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Many Conservative MPs told their voters and Associations at the last election that Britain’s relationship with the EU cannot go on as it is. They are fully entitled to say now that they have changed their minds. That they have been persuaded that Britain’s future is brighter as an EU member state. That they will swallow any misgivings they have about the deal, and back their Party leader – who, after all, is on some measures the most successful Conservative leader of modern times bar Margaret Thatcher. That this is no time to campaign for a referendum result that would turn an election-winning Prime Minister out of office, and destroy the reforming work of the first majority Tory Government in over 20 years.
What they cannot say, if they have declared that Britain’s relationship with the EU must see real reform, is that this deal makes a difference. And if they want to see such change, the lesson of this summit is that it isn’t on offer. Which leaves only one option open to them, and to Party members of the same mind – to back Brexit.