Rethinking Europe

Brexit: A Sound Deal for Cameron?

Brussels delivers some of what Cameron wants. But is it enough to defeat Brexit?

Credit: Slavko Sereda Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The mood music on work-related benefits is changing all over Europe, not just in Britain.
  • Tories love power more than ideology. If staying in the EU means staying in government, they will adapt.
  • Every major referendum held this century with the word Europe on the ballot paper has been lost.

To paraphrase Lampedusa, author of the Italian masterpiece, “The Leopard,” “Everything can change so everything stays in the same,” is perhaps the best way of summing up the proposals released by the European Union about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.

In a paper from the EU Council President Donald Tusk, Britain and the other 27 member states of the EU now have to examine the deal and decide if it is acceptable to all governments.

If so, it will formally be adopted later this month at a full Council meeting of the EU attended by Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and all heads of government.

The language is undiluted Euro-speak and open to several interpretations as the words are examined carefully. As is the way with the EU, which has elevated the art of political compromise, consensus and conciliation of opposing demands into a new sacred rite — everyone is allowed to walk away claiming they have won something.

Mr. Tusk and Commission officials can claim they have done enough to justify David Cameron campaigning positively for a Yes vote in his referendum. And that indeed was the Prime Minister’s first reaction as he enthused over the document.

Any change really?

British negotiators can say they have changed the terms of trade of Britain’s membership in the EU, even if some proposals are delivered by the time of a fully new Treaty, which won’t happen until most current players are retired from office.

Who can object to language calling for the EU to be more competitive or the idea that if a majority of parliaments and governments objected to a proposed EU directive, it would not see the light of day?

Smart negotiators in London told the Prime Minister to make these motherhood and apple pie demands top lines so that they can be easily granted and Mr. Cameron can claim he has won a new deal for Britain.

None of the traditional British Euro-sceptics were fooled. The BBC airwaves and radio phone-ins have been full of denunciations and claims that nothing really has changed in terms of Britain and Europe.

The EU Treaty remains as it is. Earlier demands that the UK should be exempt from EU social legislation, or in the words of London Mayor Boris Johnson, Britain should “regain control of its frontiers and the House of Commons should have the last word on any EU legislation” have all been dropped.

Cameron’s flawed perceptions

There is no new UK veto on proposals for eurozone integration that would affect the City. Paris has been successful in seeing off that threat.

There is complex and barely penetrable language on the way EU citizens (and presumably all foreigners) working in the UK access a narrow range of benefits, especially the wage top-up used by low-paying employers as a substitute for paying decent wages.

That has to be signed off by East European and Balkan EU member states and they may yet quibble that this is unfair to their citizens.

But in Germany, the Employment Minister, Andrea Nahles, a social democrat, is proposing to reduce benefits paid to new arrivals into the German labor market. Thus, the mood music on work-related benefits is changing all over Europe, not just in Britain.

It should not be forgotten that these are first proposals and any one of 27 other EU governments can now come back either with amendments or indeed, their own demands as they argue that if Britain is getting concessions, why can’t we?

Mr. Cameron, unfortunately, continues to proclaim that this amounts to a “reformed European Union” and he would be advised to stop such claims as they make him look silly. Tory Euro-sceptics have been quick to point out how thin the deal is.

But the Prime Minister now has the perception, if not much reality, that he has obtained some changes as a result of hard negotiations. In politics, perception often counts for more than reality.

Rocky road ahead

If Mr. Cameron can now convince his MPs in the Conservative Party that they can now become supporters of pro-European politics after 20 years of deep and wide Euro-scepticism, then the chances of Brexit will recede.

In the past, the Conservative Party has often spent years in a dead-end, as when they rejected free trade or voting reform in the 19th century or held out against Irish independence or votes for women in the 20th century.

But in the end, the Tories love power and office more than ideology and if staying in the EU means the Tories stay in government, they will adapt.

The big difference is the plebiscite, which transfers such decisions from Parliament to those with money and populist appeal to win a referendum vote.

Every major referendum held this century with the word “Europe” on the ballot paper has been lost as the Swedes (Euro), French and Dutch (constitution) and Irish (Lisbon Treaty) can confirm.

There is a long way to go and much persuasion to be undertaken before Britain decides to stay in the European Union.

The risk of Brexit remains high and it is far from clear that the dense, legalistic, Euro-speak from Brussels will make that much difference.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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