The PM's best bet now is to move the EU debate onto grander issuesby John Springford / February 20, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Why Brexit could be Britain’s biggest diplomatic disaster
David Cameron’s “renegotiation and referendum” strategy was never going to be easy. Much has changed since Harold Wilson played the same game and won in 1975: the EU has 28 rather than nine members, which makes reform more difficult, while the public and press are less willing to bend the knee to politicians. This explains why the UK’s EU deal, agreed last night, will not do much to change Britain’s relationship with the Union nor help Cameron win the referendum.
Over the last two years, Cameron had sensibly softened his demands from the impossible—he considered limits to the number of immigrants from the EU, as well as “repatriating powers,” for example—to the negotiable. But he did not explain to his fellow Conservatives why he was lowering his ambitions, and if he had, he would have found it difficult to keep Tory eurosceptics under control during the negotiating period (which he did, more or less).
The renegotiation, which kicked off soon after Cameron’s May 2015 general election victory, was meant to give a significant number of Tories a rationale for changing their minds on the EU. But the final package will probably not persuade many of them to switch from “Out,” or fence-sitting, to “In.”
The biggest victory for Cameron is that he is permitted to implement two minor curbs to EU migrants’s access to welfare. The UK will be allowed to reduce in-work benefits, like tax credits and housing benefits, that future migrants from the EU may claim. They won’t be able to claim such benefits from day one of residence, and the amount they receive will slowly grow over four years. From that point, they will be treated identically to a British worker. The British had originally demanded a permanent ban on access to all in-work benefits for the first four years of residence, but the EU’s lawyers said that this would too obviously violate the treaties’ non-discrimination principle. This “emergency brake” will be in…