It may be that other EU countries and the EU institutitions are so convulsed by Europe’s migration crisis that David Cameron fails to clinch the renegotiation deal in February that would pave the way for a summer referendum. That is the picture which the Daily Telegraph paints in a report this morning.
Or it may be that the Prime Minister is able to gain his agreement, presumably through the offices of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker. It is certainly in the interest of Downing Street to pull off a “win for Britain” after “a stand-up row” that leaves talks on “the brink of collapse” before they “go down to the wire”.
Either way, it is apparent that Cameron is increasingly preoccupied by getting a deal on lower immigration – or what may pass for one – while George Osborne’s attention is fixed on protecting non-Eurozone countries from being outvoted within the EU.
This reflects the Chancellor’s more liberal outlook on migration: he is sympathetic to taking students out of the immigration numbers. The Prime Minister is usually inclined to back Theresa May up, and his caution on migration may reflect his own experience as a Home Office SpAd under Michael Howard.
None the less, immigration control wasn’t a major feature of his Bloomberg speech on EU reform, and Number 10’s focus on the issue as part of the renegotiation reflects polls that show a voter preoccupation with cutting migrants’ access to benefits in order to reduce immigration itself.
Daniel Hannan wrote on this site last week that Cameron’s recent speech on integration, Muslims and speaking English was part of a pre-referendum push by Downing Street to show that the Prime Minister is tough on immigration. His reference yesterday in PMQs of a “bunch of migrants” can perhaps be seen in the same light.
According to the Telegraph, the Prime Minister has three core demands: “first, that EU workers should not receive benefits for the first six months; second that they should then be required to demonstrate “self-sufficiency” and lastly, that an emergency brake should be in place to stop public services being overwhelmed by EU migrants”.
The paper claims that the minimum salary bar offered for benefit access is “too low to be useful” and that the emergency brake on the table wouldn’t come into effect for two years. Not much of a brake, then – and Britain would not control it in any event, if the Telegraph account is correct.
The conventional wisdom is that the earlier the referendum comes, the better the prospects are for Remain, since the migration crisis can only get worse. Denmark’s parliament has voted in favour of seizing the assets of asylum seekers to help pay for their stay while their claims are processed. Greece is being threatened with explusion from Schengen.
The summer is expected to bring a further influx into Europe. No wonder Cameron wants it to be known Britain will not take 3000 migrant children (on top of the 20,000 refugees that the Government has agreed to take): the Daily Mail splashes on the story, though others have a different take.
My presumption is that the referendum, when it comes, will turn on risk and the economy. But this could be wrong. It may be that the poll sees a low turnout, and that Leave voters who want less migration make the decisive difference. Or that the referendum becomes one on immigration, in effect – and the turnout is exceptionally high.
We simply don’t know. What we do know is that reducing migrants’ access to benefits is likely to have little effect on cutting immigration numbers: the Prime Minister is surely aware that this is so. Migration Watch says that net immigration could fall by about 100,00 a year were Britain to Leave.