Cameron’s leading Britain on a slow march to Brexit
The EU referendum on whether Britain will remain or leave is one of the most important many of us will make in our lifetimes. If only it was that simple. What should be a decision about our shared political future is being twisted into a verdict on the personal legacy of one person: David Cameron.
Cameron’s real aim for the EU referendum is clear from the start. In 2013, he promised a vote on the EU if the Conservatives won the next general election. He said the country would debate the arguments ‘in favour and against the arrangement we negotiate’ – and not the current arrangement already in place.
The choice is between Cameron’s reformed Europe versus old Europe and this hasn’t changed more than two years later. Cameron made clear when announcing his proposals that: ‘It will be your decision whether to remain in the EU on the basis of the reforms we secure, or whether we leave’. For Cameron, this isn’t a referendum about Europe; this is about his political leadership.
It would be unfair to say he fails to grasp the how difficult this will be and he admitted having ‘no illusions about the scale of the task ahead’. Finding meaningful changes that all other 27 EU leaders and the EU Parliament can accept is more difficult than finding a needle in a large haystack hidden under a sea of straw. Cameron has done well to have any proposal on the table at all. Sometimes in politics having something – anything – as a plan is a kind of triumph.
But if Cameron succeeds – and there is every possibility that he won’t – his EU reforms increase the risks that the UK will Brexit. Despite his impressive negotiations these past weeks and months, it may be time to abandon ship with the reforms and focus the debate on Britain’s current relationship if Cameron is to help keep the UK in Europe.
We only need to look at the deal on offer to see why that is. Neither friend nor foe can deny that Cameron’s new deal is a complex mix of complex nuances intelligible to only a few beyond seasoned Eurocrats and civil servants. If you confuse voters, you lose elections. As Boris Johnson rightly said yesterday, Cameron’s reforms raise more questions than answers – and strangely become more obscure the closer you peek through this jargon riddled looking-glass.
Consider three flagship proposals: the emergency brake on benefits, the end of child benefits sent overseas and the red card on unwanted EU laws. Cameron’s ‘emergency brake’ is a key part of his new EU deal. The Prime Minister said recently that ‘people coming to Britain from the EU must live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in work benefits or social housing’.
It sounds simple until you look at how it would work. The truth is it’s about as clear as North Korean rocket science. Cameron’s brake can only be used if the EU gives a green light. The UK must convince other members that a stop on benefits is ‘necessary’ because of the pressures from specifically EU migration with data Britain does not have. An emergency brake will be a temporary measure – this is no permanent policy Cameron had promised.
Cameron’s brake must be ‘proportionate’. The EU can agree an emergency brake is used in the UK or some other member state limiting it to just a year or two. What was to be a permanent four year brake is now a temporarily imposed measure from Brussels capped at four years maximum, but might always be for less than this. During this period, EU migrants will receive a growing share of in-work benefits. Not quite the ban for four years Cameron called for.
The emergency brake is meant to put a stop to child benefits for EU migrants, too. Cameron said: ‘we should end the practice of sending child benefit overseas’. But now we learn that any cap would not apply to any of the 150,000 or more EU migrants already in Britain - not one. Cameron has even been forced to admit migration his deal won’t cut migration either. It makes you wonder what’s the point of it all – a plan for its own sake?
A final key part of the EU reforms is a ‘red card’ for unwanted laws. But his proposal is more like a red card that does not always get players off the pitch – and the most convoluted of the lot.
Let’s start with the maths: all 28 EU countries have twelve weeks to get 55% or more ‘of the votes allocated to national Parliaments’ to stop it. This is as difficult to achieve as it is to understand – is that 55% of Parliaments or 55% of all members in national Parliaments? But before you do the sums, it gets worse.
Each Parliament that votes against a law must state its ‘reasoned opinions’ for it. Rejecting a proposed EU law is not enough – and a point missed thus far. (How could Westminster do that?) The European Council can then either let the bill die or it can ‘accommodate the concerns expressed’ through amending the bill so it can then become law.
Cameron’s flagship reforms can be summarised as an ‘emergency brake’ only operated by other drivers that doesn’t bring cars to a stop and a ‘red card’ that doesn’t throw all players off the pitch. Reforms they are; meaningful or readily intelligible they are not. Unsurprisingly, the initial polls are not looking good and ringing alarm bells in 10 Downing Street.
Speaking in Chippenham – coincidentally the birthplace of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – Cameron said his new deal is so good he would want Britain to join the EU on these terms if we were not already in.
But after two years his eagerly awaited deal looks dropped in less than a week. Gone is the pitch that Britain should stay in because of his new deal. Now a new tactic that Britain should remain out of the fear of what things would be like if there was a Brexit. Hope is replaced by fear.
What is surprising about Cameron’s claims that the Calais Jungle could move to Britain if there is a Brexit is not the absence of reality - the Treaty of Le Tourquet concerning the Eurotunnel is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France separate from the EU. No, the surprise is it took Cameron so little time to realise his much hyped reforms overegged the case for Remain – and more likely to push voters against them.
When first announcing a referendum, Cameron said: ‘it is hard to argue that the EU would not be greatly diminished by Britain’s departure’. The big problem he faces is that we might say the same about him if the UK opts for a Brexit.
Cameron wanted a referendum about his legacy as well as the UK’s place in Europe. In tying them together, he risks losing both. Cameron’s best hope of seeing the UK in EU is to recognise its future does not depend on his new deal. Perhaps he can better achieve his future legacy by dropping the reforms that were to be its foundation. But would this be an act of statesmanship too much?
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University and regular LabourList contributor. His book Becoming British: UK Citizenship Examined is published by Biteback next month. @thom_brooks