One fear among Eurosceptics is that the forthcoming EU referendum will be managed just like the last. David Cameron will go over there, ask for and then win a few small concessions, then come back and tart them up as an amazing deal to trick people into voting to stay in’ is a common refrain.
We should of course be watchful for just such an approach. The existence of Conservatives for Britain, who launched their recruitment drive yesterday, is welcome precisely because it helps to hold the Government’s feet to the fire, demanding that the Prime Minister live up to the original programme he laid out at Bloomberg (and that any deal should rest on the necessary Treaty change).
No-one knows exactly what the Prime Minister currently wants from the renegotiation. The Bloomberg speech went much further than many expected – not least in demanding an end to ever closer union – but since then the stated aims of the renegotiation have shrunk faster than the list of RSVPs for Liz Kendall’s next drinks party.
The Balance of Competences review instantly fumbled the crucial job of laying out the issues at stake. A year on from Bloomberg, Cameron was reduced to talking about changes of policy rather than changing the very nature of the project itself.
The shrinkage didn’t end there. To listen to discussions of the renegotiation over the last few months, you might think the EU issue was all about how much money migrants get in benefits. Fundamental questions of Britain’s place in the world, our right to democratically control our own affairs, the future of our industry, agriculture and fisheries and a host of others have largely vanished. While the words “migrants” and “welfare” didn’t appear at all in the Bloomberg speech, now they seem to be just about the only words Downing Street lists under “renegotiation aims”.
That is clearly insufficient. Whatever the British people and the Conservative grassroots might want from this EU renegotiation, they definitely want more than the Government seems to be asking.
On that basis, one can see why some are getting twitchy about a repeat of the small concessions/big boasts tactic deployed in 1975. There is at least one major reason why such a cunning trick could prove hard to pull off, though – the Prime Minister seems to be struggling to secure the small concessions bit.
The Government’s legal advisers have reportedly informed Downing Street that attempting to ban EU migrants from accessing various forms of welfare for four years would be discriminatory and therefore illegal under EU law. The only way Ministers could protect British people from funding such benefits would be to, er, also remove them from British people for the first four years of adulthood.
This is, of course, simply another symptom of the fundamentally flawed nature of the European project. Its very purpose and nature is to be anti-democratic, meddlesome and overbearing – which is why they are the only terms on which it can be judged to be very effective indeed at fulfilling its mission. To eurosceptics, the story is an apt demonstration of precisely why the EU is unacceptable in its current form and unlikely to agree to any kind of serious change.
To the Prime Minister, however, this is a further blow. If his demands have shrunk this far but are still hitting obstacles, how much further can they shrink while still existing? While it would be a difficult job to dress up an unsatisfactory deal as a great triumph, it would be impossible to perform the same feat by dressing up nothing at all.