What are we to make of David Cameron’s “deal” with the European Union? How does it affect the probability Britain will vote to leave the EU in the referendum now confirmed for 23 June?
The Prime Minister achieved very little, to my mind, in his negotiation with other EU member states. In fact, he severely weakened his cause. The chances of Britain leaving the EU have sharply risen, I’d say, since Downing Street last weekend revealed some rather threadbare concessions. “Brexit” is now a very real possibility – and any UK-based business that thinks otherwise is probably ill-informed.
Weak in itself, Cameron’s deal was politically pungent. It prompted Lord Chancellor Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson to announce they’ll now campaign to leave. That buried the notion – always preposterous, yet assiduously promoted by the “In-Crowd” anyway – that “Outers” can only be malcontents, racists or cranks.
Cameron’s supporters argue that his efforts to “fundamentally reform” the UK’s relationship with the EU – as he said in his (in)famous 2013 Bloomberg speech – met with implacable opposition in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere. That’s hardly surprising, given that the UK squandered much of its bargaining power after the Prime Minister made clear from the outset he would support staying in, whatever deal was struck.
Desperate not to ruffle feathers, Number Ten then compounded its error by making few public demands for fear of failure. This combination of reluctance and cowardice, which prevented us from negotiating hard and generating a Europe-wide popular head of steam behind a more realistic vision of the EU, is what happens when deal-making is driven by risk-averse Westminster-centric spin-doctors rather than people with genuine commercial nous. The result was inevitable and, in my view, rather tragic. Britain got very little of not very much.
Founded on noble intentions, the EU has in recent decades become a moribund, growth-sapping monolith, fast-losing what remains of its popular legitimacy. Terribly run and grossly bureaucratic, it consistently demonstrates its incompetence – be it with regard to bank regulation or reining-in agricultural over-production that warps global markets, exporting deprivation across some of the most unstable parts of the world.
The euro, the starkest example of European group-think, has been an unmitigated, self-inflicted disaster, sparking chronic unemployment and numerous debilitating sovereign debt crises. Yet, still, its creators press-on, seeking to further extend the Eurozone while moving towards a degree of fiscal and bank-reserve pooling that, all logic suggests, will eventually provoke a populist backlash. Then, of course, there’s the failure to deal with – or, at least, agree on a coherent strategy to deal with – a migration crisis of near- biblical proportions.
Had Cameron made tough demands, and stuck to his guns under an explicit and credible threat to leave, Britain could have begun to turn the integrationist tide, eventually spear-heading the major reforms the EU so desperately needs – reforms which, beyond the high-tables of self-serving diplomacy and the salons of Brussels, grass-roots voters across Europe are crying-out for.
Had our Prime Minister shown some genuine leadership, and historical perspective, he could have been the man who yanked the EU back into the real world, salvaging something positive and precious from the “European project”, re-orienting it back towards a free trade zone, with broad cooperation across a range of areas – including counter-terrorism, international trade negotiation and the environment – and away from vainglorious nation-building. A “Europe”, in other words, that is coherent, sustainable and enjoys broad, popular support.
As it is, Cameron has simply allowed the Brussels high-command defiantly to demonstrate its entrenched power and resolve to avoid reform at all costs. Now Britain has failed, passing up a unique opportunity to alter the course of the EU, it strikes me this increasingly over-bearing, power-hungry institution is doomed to continue on its anti-democratic integrationist path until it cracks apart amidst huge popular discontent. The danger then is that chauvinism and suspicion reigns, and relations across Europe take a serious turn for the worse.
The government’s failure to even attempt to secure a game-changing deal stems from a failure to understand modern Britain. Back in 2010, Cameron gave a “no ifs, no buts” pledge to reduce UK net immigration below 100,000. Figures out last week show that during the year to September 2015 the figure was 323,000, many from Eastern Europe, up from 292,000 during the same period the year before.
When it comes to immigration, the vast majority of Brits are tolerant and fair – recognizing we need new skills and energy, not least as so many of us (like me) are immigrant stock ourselves. With the best will in the world, though, huge wage differentials, open-borders and relatively generous non-contributory welfare provision – the reality of today’s EU – was never going to work.
Mindful that Ukip won 13pc of the vote at the last general election, Cameron presented a new “emergency brake” on in-work benefits for EU migrants as the centre-piece of the UK’s new deal. But what does this brake actually do? Rather than imposing a five-year in-work benefits ban for migrants, as Downing Street wanted, it allows partial payment from year one, rising to full payment by year four. It will apply not to EU migrants already in the UK, only new arrivals. Triggering this measure also depends on the UK being able formally to convince the majority of the 28 EU member states our public services are “under strain” due to immigration. Even if we do manage to do that – a big if – the measure will only apply for seven years.
As a method to reassure the British public, this is risible. Very few EU migrants claim in-work benefits during their early years here anyway, as they tend to be young, single and childless, so don’t qualify. And all the evidence suggests that East Europeans don’t move to the UK for benefits, they move here for the work and wages.
The UK’s minimum wage – around £240 a week – is twice the average wage in Poland and over four times the same in Bulgaria. There are six EU countries, in fact, where the average wage is less than a third of the UK’s minimum wage and a further eight where it is less than half, according to figures cited in a recent speech by David Davis MP, the once-time Tory leadership contender, who will likely play a high-profile role in campaigning to quit the EU.
“This has consistently been a top issue for voters for over a decade,” he says. Yet the Prime Minister has emerged with an illusory emergency brake, aimed at the wrong problem. British people, in the main, don’t mind immigration – as long as it is manageable. What they really do not like, at all, is the loss of control and democratic accountability represented by EU rules governing the free movement of labour – rules that didn’t even feature in Cameron’s renegotiation.
Other parts of “the deal” also fall apart when you touch them. The “red card” apparently allowing our Parliament to veto European legislation actually requires the agreement of the majority of other EU Parliaments – the securing of which is practically a logistic impossibility. Our opt out from “ever closer union” – just words on a document – will do nothing to check or even question the EU’s on-going, potentially explosive drive towards a “superstate”.
There are credible economic arguments on both side of the great Brexit debate. Based on the Prime Minister’s prolonger re-negotiation, though, announced with great fanfare, the government deserves to lose.