David Cameron has announced a new deal for the UK in the EU. What does it entail?
The package is a mixture of some useful, significant things; some trivial, symbolic things; and some things that are not particularly good ideas.
But the upcoming referendum is not Yes or No to Cameron’s reforms — it is a vote on the much bigger question of whether Britain should walk out of the European Union. His reforms may help persuade a few more in his badly-divided party, and will reassure a significant segment of public opinion. But it is in any case in Britain’s vital interest to stay at the heart of the EU.
What are genuinely useful are the protections for non-euro countries, the commitment to deepen the single market, the commitment that the drive to ease regulatory burdens will continue “while continuing to ensure high regulatory standards”, and the ability to take strong measures against abuse of rights, from using forged documents to sham marriages and deporting persons who are a security threat.
Symbolic or even trivial are the interpretations of what is meant by “ever-closer union” (which confirm that it never created any legal obligation on states to integrate beyond what they explicitly agree in the treaties) and the “red card” for a majority of 55% of national parliaments (when anyway a minority, which can be as low as just 4 out of 28, of the ministers representing those same national parliaments can in any case block decisions).
The provisions on limiting welfare benefits for internal EU migrants represent a considerable concession by other European countries. For in-work benefits, it means that employed, taxpaying workers (say, an Irishman, a Brit and a Pole), doing the same job at the same workplace, will now get different remuneration for the same work, after tax credits are taken into account, depending on their nationality. It was a problematic concession to secure, as it is a derogation from the fundamental EU principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality, and it meant persuading countries like Poland and Ireland that their citizens working in Britain would be disadvantaged.
Labour can be delighted that the social chapter (enshrining workplace rights across the EU) has not been touched. This is a notable victory for Labour and the trade union movement, who warned the government off a course of action which would have triggered a race to the bottom across Europe.