Philip Hammond is Foreign Secretary and the MP for Runnymede and Weybridge.
After months of discussions and endless visits around Europe to set out our arguments, patiently but firmly, the package that Donald Tusk circulated on Tuesday shows that our requests for reform have been understood. In each of the four areas we have pressed for reform, the EU has made important proposals. Combined with a real and tangible change of mood across the EU since the recession of 2009, we now have the basis of an agreed direction for the EU over the years to come.
Some of the most important details of the package still need to be agreed. And just as some in the UK complain that these reforms do not go far enough, some in otthher countries in Europe will argue that they go much too far. We will have to work hard in the run up to, and at, the February European Council if we are to secure the right deal. If our European partners cannot be flexible enough to accommodate our legitimate concerns, then we should not be afraid to walk away. We need a good deal, rather than any deal or a rushed deal.
We are clear about our objectives and about the scale of the challenge in the coming weeks to agree the details. But this package offers the basis for a deal that can deliver for the British people.
On sovereignty, these proposals set out the UK’s special status under the treaties. We have an explicit carve-out from further political integration. There is an important mechanism to implement the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality which will mean the EU reviewing the powers that it holds and returning to Member States those that are better delivered at national or local level in accordance with those principles. National Parliaments will have a crucial role in this process, and through the new red card procedure, will be able to work together so that a majority of them can block any new EU legislation that breaches these principles.
On competitiveness, there is a commitment to get on with signing international trade deals, deepening the single market, and reducing the burden of regulation sector by sector.
There is a clear set of principles and a mechanism to ensure that the UK is not disadvantaged by further Eurozone integration. These would guarantee that there will be no discrimination or disadvantage based on currency or location, and that the UK will not be forced to contribute to the costs of bailing out Euro member states; and they are legally enforceable, giving us strong protection which we would not have outside the EU. This is a far cry from the surrender by Labour when it signed us up to Eurozone bailouts.
To help deal with the pressures of immigration, there is explicit recognition that our welfare system can act as an artificial pull factor drawing migrants to the UK, and that new mechanisms are needed to help stop that. We have already ensured that new EU migrants will be unable to claim Universal Credit and if they have not found work within six months, they will have to leave. These draft texts now propose that child benefit can be paid at lower rates for non-resident children and that migrants coming to the UK from the EU will have to wait four years before getting full access to our system of in-work benefits. There are strong measures, advocated by the Home Secretary, to ensure that the UK can prevent those who pose a genuine threat from coming into this country, to tackle fraud and sham marriages, and to ensure that we can apply our immigration rules to third country nationals coming from the EU.
There are also important clarifications of our opt-out on Justice and Home Affairs, and a re-affirmation that national security remains the responsibility of member states.
If agreed, these changes will be legally binding and irreversible. The centre-piece is an international law decision that will be deposited at the United Nations. It cannot be changed without the unanimous agreement of every EU country, including Britain. This is a similar model to the Danish agreement from 1992 that remains in force today, nearly a quarter of a century later and which has proved the test of time.
This package is an important staging post in the continuing process of reform of the EU. It is certainly not the end of the story. We have already accomplished a lot, from cutting the EU Budget for the first time in history, to returning powers over more than 100 police and criminal justice measures to the UK, to agreeing the double majority voting principle for the European Banking Authority. If this new package of reforms is agreed and implemented, the UK’s relationship with the EU will be much improved; but no-one is suggesting it will be perfect.
The UK will need to continue to fight for an EU that works for Britain – to keep a tight budget, to protect our rebate, and to bear down on burdensome regulation. The UK inside the EU should use its relative weight to shape the EU in its image. We are the second largest economy in the EU and forecast by some to become the biggest. We are the largest military power in the EU, with a world class diplomatic network and a seat at the top table of all of the major international organisations.
Of course the UK could succeed outside the EU. We did so for centuries and we could do so again. That is not the issue in the forthcoming referendum campaign. The question is whether we would be more successful, more secure, more prosperous by staying inside the EU or on the outside. This package gives us the basis of a deal that can ensure that the UK gets the best of both worlds. In the EU for guaranteed access to the single market and a big say in its rules; freedom for our people to live and work across Europe; and cooperation to enhance the safety of our people in the face of terrorist threats. But with guarantees that we’ll never join the euro or pay for its bail-outs, never join a European army, never be part of Schengen, and are exempt from grandiose plans for political integration. In those things that are in our national interest, out of those that are not.
I accept the sincerity of those who hold a principled position that we should leave the EU. But I don’t agree. Membership of almost any international organisation brings frustrations, but we do get something in return. The EU is no different. We need to be very hard-headed in assessing the costs and benefits of membership, and the reforms outlined in Tusk’s document help to shift the balance in favour of benefits. It is a good start, but the challenge is now to deliver on the detail. We were the only party at the General Election to promise to renegotiate our relationship and put the deal to the British people in a straight in-out referendum. We are wasting no time in delivering on that promise. And I hope we will get a deal later this month that we can recommend to the British people—so that the UK can continue to fight, from the inside, for the type of Europe that we believe in. At a time of danger and uncertainty in the world, that would be the best outcome, if we can achieve it. We must work hard over the next two weeks to try to do so.