David Cameron seemed pleased with himself earlier this month when he stood up in the House of Commons and finally announced the details of the draft deal for his renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU – a draft that will dominate discussions at this week’s European Council. But what should we make of the proposed deal? In reality, it offers few surprises. It’s a mixture of reasonable improvements, trivial tweaks and irrelevant details. But that said, the proposed reforms may just help Cameron persuade more in his badly divided Conservative Party, and indeed a segment of the British public, to remain in the European Union.
The proposed settlement comes in the form of a draft ‘Decision’ of the EU’s heads of state or government, and is accompanied by a number of commitments to modify existing European legislation. This will need to be approved at this week’s European Council meeting and will take force if and when the UK votes to remain a member of the EU. There is no provision in the EU treaties for a ‘Decision’ of this kind, so it will need to be registered as an intergovernmental agreement in international law, thus avoiding the need to change the EU treaties. Some elements, though, notably those relating to social benefits, will in due course require modification of European legislation and therefore approval by the European Parliament.
“Most other governments are aware that EU migrants in Britain overall pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services”
The content of the settlement is split into four sections: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, and social benefits and free movement. The most useful aspects are those on economic governance, and include protections for non-eurozone countries, the commitment to deepen the single market, and the commitment that the drive to ease regulatory burdens will proceed ‘while continuing to ensure high regulatory standards’. On that note, the left can be pleased that the Labour Party and trade unions have successfully deflected an attack on EU social protections and workplace rights, which was threatened by the Conservatives a year ago and which would have triggered a race to the bottom across Europe. Symbolic or even trivial, meanwhile, are the interpretations of what is meant by ‘ever-closer union’, which confirm that the treaty preamble never imposed any legal obligation on states to integrate beyond what they explicitly agreed in the treaties. Also symbolic is the proposed ‘red card’ for a majority of 55% of national parliaments to block EU proposals. After all, a minority as low as 4 out of 28 ministers representing those same national parliaments can already block decisions at EU ministerial meetings.
It’s the provisions on welfare benefits for internal EU migrants that, if confirmed, would represent the most considerable concession by other EU countries. For in-work benefits, the draft provisions could lead to employed and taxpaying workers – say, an Irishman, a Brit and a Pole – doing the same job at the same workplace but getting different remuneration for the same work, after tax credits are taken into account. Fundamentally, the provisions challenge the principle of non-discrimination on ground of nationality laid down in the treaty. Even if this is circumscribed, it’s understandable why other countries are not enthusiastic about this concession, and they all of course know that the issue is a contrived one, as it didn’t feature in Cameron’s initial speech setting out his intentions to seek reforms to the EU. And most other governments are aware that EU migrants in Britain overall pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services. Restricting out-of-work benefits is one thing – and recent case-law at the European Court has made it clear that member countries are entitled to refuse assistance to the so-called benefit tourists, meaning anyone coming to their country simply to claim benefits and not to work. But in-work benefits, not least tax credits and child benefits for employed and therefore taxpaying EU migrants, is another matter.
“There’s no room for quibbling on details – we must keep Britain at the heart of Europe”
But we mustn’t be distracted by this sideshow. The details of the Decision at this week’s European Council miss the big picture for two reasons. First, the upcoming referendum is not on Cameron’s reforms, it’s on the much more important question of Britain’s entire EU membership. And on that genuinely momentous issue, there’s no room for quibbling on details – we must keep Britain at the heart of Europe. Second, the entire renegotiation process ignores the fact that reform in the EU is not a one-off process, and it’s not going to stop at the end of this week. Reform is about changing the policies that are contained in ordinary EU legislation. And this battle has already been won. Most EU legislation these days is concerned with revisiting old agreements to update, improve or repeal them. The EU is already in a non-stop process of reform, day-in and day-out.
Regardless of David Cameron’s renegotiation, Britain is stronger, safer and more prosperous as part of the European Union. We can and should ignore the Conservative Party’s antics and focus the minds of voters on the real issues that affect them: jobs and growth, security at home and abroad, and strong protections for workers, consumers and the environment – all of which are enhanced by our EU membership.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Dave Kellam