Cameron has an ace: the EU desperately wants to keep hold of Britainby Vicky Pryce / January 29, 2016 / Leave a comment
David Cameron has had a complicated end to the week. He originally planned to spend his Friday visiting European capitals to drum up support for his proposed changes to the EU. He wants agreements in place before the EU summit in February.
Instead, the Prime Minister attended a meeting in Brussels with the President of the European council, Donald Tusk. Cameron’s change of schedule has been briefed in the UK as a positive development and the government is indicating that there is likely to be progress in his push to limit in-work benefits for four years for new EU migrants. Tusk, it should be noted, is a former prime minister of Poland, a country that has benefited greatly from the free movement of people.
To avoid accusations of discrimination against other European nationals, the UK would, under this proposal, also be free to impose a four-year ban on migrants entering Britain from the EU. Even if this compromise were accepted, it would make very little difference to overall immigration levels. This is a good thing in some ways as the Office for Budget Responsibility explained in its forecasts issued at the last autumn statement. Those growth projections relied heavily on net migration staying at roughly current levels for the next few years.
There are in any case likely to be serious limits to the applicability of the rule. The ban on benefits could only be put into practice if agreed by a majority of other states. That would depend on other states being convinced that the UK welfare system was being put under too much pressure. In this scenario, Britain would be allowed to deploy a “temporary” emergency brake, halting immigration. This idea is open to interpretation—it has already been ridiculed by Tory Eurosceptics.
Cameron finds himself at an impasse. He knows that the treatment of EU workers is the hardest issue of all, and he may be tempted to argue that this compromise of an emergency brake is a victory. His other demands are easier to meet: the “ever closer union” clause in the EU treaties can be made even more vague; everyone will probably agree that regulation should not be excessive; and even the requirement to ensure that national governments have more say on EU legislation and that countries outside the eurozone are not unduly disadvantaged from greater euro integration are all seen as fair demands.
The truth is that, even on the more controversial migration issue, Britain now appears willing to countenance something far milder than its original demand to restrict the free movement of people in Europe. What is more, Schengen—the concept of borderless Europe—has effectively been abandoned under pressure from the massive influx of Syrian and other migrants.
The chances are that Cameron will get something that he can claim is a victory—maybe not exactly what he is asking for, but close enough. Why? First because his demands are now much watered down and second because the migration crisis is pulling European countries apart in a way that is already threatening the very existence of the EU. Losing Britain now would be devastating for Europe. Cameron may well have for once got his timing just right.