Cameron might persuade us on the EU—so long as he doesn’t mention his deal

Argument should focus on the particular; not the general—unless it's about the EU

February 29, 2016
Prime Minster David Cameron addresses local farmers from the Ahoghill, Co. Antrim at Ballybollan House, as he continues a tour of the UK setting out the case for staying in the European Union. ©Liam McBurney/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Prime Minster David Cameron addresses local farmers from the Ahoghill, Co. Antrim at Ballybollan House, as he continues a tour of the UK setting out the case for staying in the European Union. ©Liam McBurney/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Prime Minster David Cameron addresses local farmers from Ballybollan House, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, as he undertakes a tour of the UK setting out his case for Britain remaining in the European Union. 27th February 2016 ©Liam McBurney/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Read more: Cameron's compromise

Rhetoric always carries the shadow of duplicity. The ancient art of persuasion is also an act of chicanery, of false witness. As he began the task of selling his deal on the European Union to the British nation, the Prime Minister embodied both senses of the term. In the parliamentary session after his statement to the House of Commons, Cameron was at his most poised and commanding. The contrast with the leader of the Opposition’s stumbling incoherence was painful to behold. Yet if he is going to prevail, and the "Remain" side is going to win, Cameron’s rhetoric is going to have to change.

There are two problems with the deal that Cameron secured from Brussels. The first is that the details fall a long way short of the exaggerated expectations he foolishly raised. The second is that, dealing as it does with matters of no great relevance to anyone other than obsessed Tory MPs, the deal will be irrelevant to the final outcome of the referendum. As a rule, argument is better when it moves from the general to the particular. The debate on the EU will be the opposite. The case Cameron now has to make is for the principle of the EU, galling as it will be to forget a deal on which he has worked so hard.

In 1975 Harold Wilson knew the contents of the deal before he started to talk about them. The renegotiation itself was rather sotto voce. Though the details are lost to historical memory, Wilson was judged to have dealt cannily. The deal did not feature prominently in the campaign but when it was mentioned it was thought to add lustre to Wilson’s appeal for a "Yes" vote. The same will not be true for Cameron. Though he talks about the deal as granting “special status” to Britain, on each aspect of the deal, the Prime Minister was forced to retreat somewhat from his rhetorical position.

The Prime Minister made a great deal of the famous words that are on the face of the Treaty of Rome: the “ever closer union” to which euro-sceptics are convinced the European Union is tending. In the event, he won a promissory note to turn the drift back. The negotiated deal contains a recognition that the United Kingdom… is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision... so as to make it clear that the references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom."

Ever since the enlargement of the European Union to 28 nations, the dream of eventual political union has, in point of fact, ended. There are many senior Conservatives who still take the objective literally and, for them, the wording has an important rhetorical function. Cameron was less successful, though, in his attempt to redeem his promise to win back power for Westminster. Though he has negotiated a new “red card” mechanism which means that a Commission proposal can be blocked if 55 per cent of national parliaments agree, it is unlikely ever to be invoked. A weaker predecessor, the “yellow card” has only been used twice. Besides, an alliance of parliaments is not the repatriation of power that Cameron promised. The prime minister is straining credulity when he claims that this reform puts the sovereignty of Westminster “beyond doubt.” There are also pledges that appear to have been forgotten altogether. The final deal contained no mention of repatriating EU social and employment law or changes to the working-hours directive.

The next rhetorical mission was Cameron’s quest to have it recognised formally that the euro is not the only currency of the European Union. The purpose of this was to protect the non-euro nations, the practical consequence of which was a guarantee that Britain will not be required to fund euro bailouts and will be reimbursed for central EU funds required to prop up the euro. This is useful but does little more than codify what we knew already, which is that further monetary integration will be voluntary for countries that have not joined the euro.

Every EU conversation at some point turns to the stock cliché of the European Union, which is the burden of regulation. A Conservative renegotiation of British terms would not have been complete without a section on competitiveness. The outcome of the deal is, stunningly, even duller than the topic itself. With strong resistance from the French negating more radical reform, Cameron secured an anodyne clause on financial regulation and the deal commits European institutions only “to make all efforts” to strengthen the internal market and to lower the burden of administration “where feasible.” It is hardly stuff to stir the passions.

That, though, is precisely the danger implicit in the fourth, and most important, pillar of the Prime Minister’s EU deal which concerns welfare and immigration. The Conservative shopping list, presented in the 2015 election manifesto, was extensive. It included the demand that EU migrants should be ineligible for tax credits and child benefit until they had a record of contributions of four years standing. It demanded a four-year residency requirement for social housing. It committed Cameron to seek an end to the ability of jobseekers from the EU to claim any employment related benefits at all and to impose the requirement to leave on anyone who has not found work within six months. Finally, Cameron also sought to prevent EU migrant workers in the UK sending child benefit or child tax credits home.

In the event, the Prime Minister did well to win even some of this. He won an agreement on out-of-work benefits and newly arrived migrants from the EU will not be able to claim jobseeker's allowance for three months. If they have not found a job within six months they will be required to leave, as the Prime Minister sought.

The rest of the deal did not, however, look exactly like the promise. Cameron gained the right to limit the access of new arrivals from the EU to claim in-work benefits for a period up to four years. This stipulation will hold for seven years, rather than the 13 Cameron sought, and the worker will gradually earn the right to higher benefits. This is how a reform that sounds reasonable will be an administrative horror to implement. The deal on child benefit is subject to the same administrative complexity. Cameron failed to gain an outright ban and the amount of child benefit remitted will now be linked to the standard of living of the child, back in the home country, rather than the prevailing benefit level in Britain. This is a leviathan of an arrangement to make for the tiny amount of child benefit that actually leaves Britain. Finally, the manifesto demands on social housing were dropped and never appeared in the negotiating process at all.

It is a rare person, though, who will vote on the detail of social security entitlements. The big public anxiety around immigration has been left virtually untouched by all this. In a speech at Bloomberg, Cameron foolishly excited the prospect that his deal would help to curb immigration from the EU. He mooted serious reform to the principle of free movement of labour even though that would have required substantive Treaty change. In the event, Cameron got exactly what he was always liable to get on this, which was nothing at all.

That is why the deal has to be laid aside. It contains some modest victories on issues which engage nobody and nothing at all on the big question. When Cameron decides, again and again, to bang on about Europe “one more time” between now and 23rd June, he will have to make the general rhetorical case for the European Union. If by the time we vote the public have forgotten there even was a deal, he will have done a persuasive job.

Now read: Cameron's EU deal is wafer thin, but that's not the point