I hesitate before challenging my good friend and former colleague Paul Goodman, since he’s usually right about everything. But he’s unfair to suggest that the PM’s demands on EU reform are “vanishing”. He dismisses the big new ambitions in the PM’s proposals and understates their effect; he sweeps over areas where reform has already been achieved, and he’s mistaken about areas where pragmatic co-operation is a good thing.
The new deal is not yet agreed, but far from being a climb-down the draft delivers change in all the areas that Britain asked for. In all the essentials it meets the ambition set out by the Prime Minister in his Bloomberg Speech in 2013 and the commitments in our Election Manifesto last year.
Paul raises the absence of reform of social and employment laws without mentioning that a key part of the renegotiation demands are concrete steps to deregulate and boost competiveness; he laments the Charter of Fundamental Rights but omits to mention our plans (separate to the renegotiation) for a British Bill of Rights to ensure that our courts cannot use the Charter to assert new rights; he forgets our opt-out from the Working Time Directive; and of course he neglects to mention that the Prime Minister once vetoed a treaty entirely.
Paul discounts the key proposed reforms such as carving Britain out from ever closer union, protecting us from Eurozone integration and giving more power to parliaments (addressing the democratic deficit which we Eurosceptics have long complained about), and he says these would require treaty change or not be “bankable”. But actually the central text will be legally binding on all Member States and irreversible. In the Commons last week Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, said that the document was indeed legally binding, would be a “powerful tool” against “capricious interpretation of the treaties”, and that the Prime Minister had “achieved a quite remarkable result”.
Paul says that commitments on benefits to EU citizens haven’t been delivered, but Iain Duncan Smith has banned EU migrant jobseekers from claiming benefits on arrival, and says that this will make the system “fair”. The proposed reforms now go much further on child and in-work benefits to ensure that the right to work isn’t a right to claim.
Forced to concede that we now have an emergency brake proposal on benefits for EU migrants that will be put in place immediately, Paul discounts it because he doesn’t like the mechanism (though that still isn’t agreed). But in my BMW what matters to me rather more than the German wiring under the bonnet is that the brake works when I need it, for as long as I need it. And, crucially, the European Commission has stated that Britain already qualifies to use the brake – so with the necessary legislation, we would be able to implement it shortly after the referendum.
No, the Common Agricultural Policy isn’t in the renegotiation – but Britain has already driven reforms to it, not least by reducing the EU Budget – another success which critics said the PM would never achieve. And we should certainly push for further reform in this area.
Yes, the Strasbourg Parliament is still there, and yes we might have opposed this in a manifesto for European Elections in a previous decade, but demanding as a red line that the French give it up would quite obviously have sabotaged the renegotiation before it had even started. Indeed, most of the demands for more radical renegotiation, or crude assertions of British sovereignty, are barely concealed Brexit notices.
And that’s the key point. Cameron has aimed his renegotiation at the key areas of public concern and he is clearly succeeding in winning the concessions we need to redefine our relationship: to protect the City of London (no, that isn’t a trivial matter), make the EU more democratic, address high levels of migration, and – crucially – stop the ratchet of ever deeper integration. In fact, the package reverses the process for the first time.
Charles Powell has prompted a nice discussion about whether Margaret Thatcher would have taken the same line as Cameron. In office (rather than when she left and was being pushed hard to take public positions by some who perhaps should not have done so) the great lady was indeed pragmatic, as she was when she joined the Single Market. In truth, Cameron is the first Prime Minister since 1975 to take powers back from Brussels rather than give them away.
Under this proposed deal, the EU will no longer have the power to force British taxpayers to bail out the Eurozone, or to stop Britain denying full welfare to EU migrants for four years, or to force Britain into further political integration. And thanks to the Referendum Lock written into law under David Cameron, no power can ever be passed again to Brussels without the British people having a say.
I understand that none of this is enough for those who are determined to leave. But if they’re honest, no reform ever will be. Feigned shock on the part of commentators who were determined to be disappointed, or dramatic announcements by politicians who claim they’ve now been driven reluctantly to the Brexit, should – let us put it kindly – be taken with a large pinch of salt when coming from those who’ve long made up their minds.
Some Conservatives have already decided to vote leave, while others would remain come what may. They take a principled stance, and I respect their views. But I believe that many Party members and supporters who, like me, count themselves as Eurosceptic, have no love for the EU and worry about its direction, would prefer to see reform than take the unnecessary risk of Brexit.
To those Conservatives I would say: we have long sought a European arrangement which recognises Britain’s unique circumstances and separates us from the drive towards a superstate. This deal gives us the special status in the EU which we want, and so the best of both worlds: outside the euro, and protected from deeper integration, but able to access the single market; in the world’s greatest trading block of over 500 million people, but still outside the Schengen area and so able to maintain our borders.
We would have to be very certain of the alternative before throwing such an advantageous position away, yet even Brexit campaigners can’t agree on what arrangement we would have outside the EU. As I’ve argued before, Conservatives have a considerable political investment in our success in re-building Britain’s economy. We should think long and hard before we decide to gamble that record on an entirely uncertain new course.