We’ll see the details of the Government’s EU renegotiation at the end of the week. When they come, they will be a variously tweaked and watered-down version of the Tusk proposals published a fortnight ago. To recap on what those proposals really mean in practice, we thought it would be useful to compare how the reality of the proposals measures up to the Government’s rhetoric about them:
The deal’s legal status
- The claim: It will be “legally binding”. This has been a common refrain from the Prime Minister – as he told the Commons: “These changes will be binding in international law, and will be deposited at the UN.”
- The reality: 1) MEPs have the right to amend or even reject the deal, even after the referendum has taken place; 2) given that there is no treaty change taking place, the treaties still reign supreme, EU law still over-rules British law and the European Court of Justice still has the final say – meaning that the deal is far from “legally binding”, as the Danes discovered as their 1992 deal was swiftly eroded; 3) this argument about depositing treaties at the United Nations is utter chaff – it’s a process for registering treaties, not a process that lends them any legal weight. The UN doesn’t enforce the documents registered with it, it just puts them on a shelf.
- The claim: The child benefit change delivers on Conservative election pledges. In his Siemens speech on 2nd February, the Prime Minister said: “…in the election, what I said was that I think there are four things in this welfare area that needed to be sorted out…I said…If you come and you work, you get the child benefit but paid at local rates”.
- The reality: The manifesto did not talk about child benefit being “paid at local rates” at all. It was very clear, promising: “If an EU migrant’s child is living abroad, then they should receive no child benefit or child tax credit, no matter how long they have worked in the UK and no matter how much tax they have paid.” That’s “no”, ie none, zero, zilch, nada. The draft renegotiation deal proposes that British taxpayers will fund child benefit for children living abroad at the level set out by the child’s home country – and it now seems that this could well end up only applying to the children of new arrivals, a further watering down.
The four year welfare “brake”
- The claim: Tapering increases in welfare access over a migrant’s first four years in the UK delivers on Conservative election pledges. fourth you don’t get instant access to our welfare system, it takes four years before you do. In his Siemens speech, the Prime Minister said: “…in the election, what I said was that I think there are four things in this welfare area that needed to be sorted out…I said…you don’t get instant access to our welfare system, it takes four years before you do.” Assessing whether the EU proposals matched up to his demands, he said “there is a four-year waiting period before you get full in-work British benefits”.
- The reality: There’s some careful wording being used to muddy the water here – waiting four years for “full” access to benefits is not the same as waiting four years for any access to benefits. The manifesto was clear that the promise was for migrants to wait four years before getting any welfare “We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years”. Cameron was even more clear in November 2014, saying “once they are in work, they won’t get benefits or social housing from Britain unless they have been here for at least four years.” A proposal to allow migrants access to some welfare almost as soon as they arrive, increasing over the course of four years to full benefit rights, is a far more generous deal than what was promised.
The “red card” system
- The claim: That the ‘red card’ system proposed by Tusk will protect Britain from invasive EU laws. To quote Cameron at Siemens: “if Brussels comes up with some crazy scheme, we can get hold of other parliaments and work together with ours and put a red light up and it doesn’t go any further.”
- The reality: There are two fundamental problems here. First, the feasibility of gathering enough votes to use the ‘red card’ system is highly dubious. In 2008, William Hague dismissed such a system as useless, saying “even if the European Commission proposed the slaughter of the first-born it would be difficult to achieve such a remarkable conjunction of parliamentary votes.” Second, even if the necessary votes could be gathered, without treaty change the Commission can simply ignore the red card. A safeguard that is nigh-on impossible to use, and which when used isn’t binding, isn’t really a safeguard at all.