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The key EURef issue: Whether Cameron can secure a deal that’s saleable

January 30th, 2016

DC-EU

David Herdson questions whether minor benefit reform will be enough

When Cameron gave his Bloomberg speech three years ago, kicking off his whole renegotiation policy, he set out a vision of the European Union he believed was fit for the twenty-first century, built on five principles:

1. Competitiveness. In particular, completing the Single Market in services, energy and digital, and “addressing the sclerotic, inefficient decision-making” and “creating a leaner, less bureaucratic Union”.

2. Flexibility. He mentioned doing away with ‘ever closer union’ and ensuring that members outside the Eurozone needed changes to safeguard their interests as a quid pro quo for those within it to develop the institutional power they needed to be able to run the currency.

3. That power must be able to flow back to member states, as promised at Laeken. He specifically mentioned repatriating powers not just to Britain but to all member states in the fields of the environment, social affairs and crime.

4. Democratic accountability and a bigger role for national parliaments.

5. Fairness and in particular that the rules of the Single Market are not skewed to favour Eurozone members.

It’s a fine vision and one which no doubt the great majority of the British public would sign up to. From the noises coming out of Brussels, it’s a long way distant from what’s on offer. The right to petition for a temporary exemption from paying equal benefits doesn’t really address the points he spoke about back in 2013. Any of them.

To be fair, Angela Merkel has provided the European Union with good reason to put something else on the agenda for the February summit and getting some kind of workable solution to the migrant crisis and the consequent near-collapse of Schengen is more pressing. However that doesn’t address the EU’s complete reluctance to engage on any of Cameron’s points. Even if a new treaty isn’t in the offing – and it quite clearly isn’t – he ought to be pushing for the Council to support the principles he laid out. After all, it’s not as if they’re a threat to any of the other members; on the contrary.

The British media always viewed Cameron’s initiative parochially, through the Thatcherite lens of ‘winning back powers’, when any reading of his speech shows that his vision was far bigger than that. It’s therefore ironic that his failure to gain any sort of traction with his big ideas has reduced him to play exactly the sort of game the media believed he was playing in the first place.

But what he does look likely to come back with, whether in February or June, looks like being thin gruel indeed. The question is whether it’s saleable in a referendum? At the moment, Cameron quite clearly thinks not given his rejection of the ‘emergency brake’ offer. But even if he – and the pressure put on the other EU leaders by polling in the UK – can extract a bit more, is that the basis on which to ground membership for the next twenty years or so?

My prediction is that whatever Cameron comes back with will actually have very little impact one way or the other. There will be no metaphorical waving of pieces of paper and the campaign will be won and lost on almost exactly the same issues that it would have been had there been no negotiation at all, and by which politicians are advocating which position.

And on that score, it comes down to whether the EU can mismanage the migrant crisis so badly that it overcomes the multiple failings of the multiple Leave campaigns.

David Herdson