EU Exit brexit

As we have charted over the years since the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg Speech, the Government’s EU renegotiation aims have an alarming tendency to rapidly shrink, often to the point of vanishing entirely.

It’s therefore worth comparing what he was asking for to what he actually got. Most of his original pitch has fallen by the wayside, but we can look specifically on the two central planks (such as they are) of the proposal published yesterday: welfare for migrants and the ‘red card’ system to allow parliaments to block EU laws.

Welfare for migrants

What he asked for: The Prime Minister’s original demands, in his Bloomberg speech, didn’t mention the words “welfare”, “migrant” or “immigration” at all. But as other goals fell by the way side, the renegotiation pivoted away from fundamentally changing our relationship with the EU, and towards restricting EU migrants’ access to benefits.

  • In a speech on 28th November 2014, Cameron pledged restrictions on welfare for jobseekers from the EU and a period of four years before they would be eligible for benefits: “EU migrants should have a job offer before they come here. UK taxpayers will not support them if they don’t.” The 2015 Conservative manifesto repeated the pledge: “…we will end the ability of EU jobseekers to claim any job-seeking benefits at all.”
  • The 2014 speech promised an end to paying child benefit for children who live abroad, too: “If their child is living abroad, then there should be no child benefit or no tax credit at all, no matter how long they’ve worked in the UK and no matter how much tax they’ve paid.” That, too, was repeated in the manifesto: “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.”
  • Most notably, the 2014 speech promised that EU migrants would have to pay into the system for four years before they became eligible to receive welfare: “And once they’re in work, they won’t get benefits or social housing from Britain unless they’ve been here for at least four years.”  That, too, featured in the manifesto: “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.”

What he got: Bluntly, yesterday’s proposals do not match up to Cameron’s speech or to the manifesto:

  • EU migrant jobseekers retain the right to access Jobseekers’ Allowance. Free movement still applies to those without job offers, who are travelling simply to look for work.
  • Child benefit will continue to be paid to EU migrants whose children live abroad, though the EU proposes to give us the freedom to reduce the amount to take into account lower costs of living in the countries where they reside.
  • The famous four-year period before EU migrants can claim in-work benefits has been thoroughly watered down. Instead of a ban the proposal is now for migrant workers to progressively gain more and more access to welfare as the four year period passes. Tellingly, what was once “at least four years” has, in the EU’s document, become “up to four years”. When the Prime Minister was asked yesterday how long someone arriving in the UK would wait before receiving their first welfare payment, he was unwilling to answer, saying that “details” were yet to be finalised. Not only is the policy fundamentally weakened, but it will not be permanent – only an “emergency brake”, to be applied occasionally and temporarily. Worst of all, the power to apply that brake will not rest with Parliament or the British Government, but will be decided by the EU institutions after an application from Britain. In the Q&A after that 2014 speech Cameron poured scorn on “some arcane mechanism within the EU, which would probably be triggered by the European Commission and not by us” – but now he’s got one.

The ‘red card’ system

What he asked for: Both the Bloomberg speech and the manifesto were somewhat vague on the question of beefing up Parliament’s oversight of new EU legislation – often bundling it inaccurately together with the idea of winning powers back from Brussels:

  • Bloomberg: “A new settlement subject to the democratic legitimacy and accountability of national parliaments where Member States combine in flexible cooperation”
  • 2015 Conservative manifesto: “We want national parliaments to be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation.”

What he got: Sadly, the new proposals are both complex and weak:

  • Catchily, the official text reads: “Where reasoned opinions on the non-compliance of a draft Union legislative act with the principle of subsidiarity, sent within 12 weeks from the transmission of that draft, represent more than 55 per cent of the votes allocated to the national Parliaments, the Council Presidency will include the item on the agenda of the Council for a comprehensive discussion on these opinions and on the consequences to be drawn therefrom.”
  • In practice, that means a minimum of 14 parliaments within the EU must all agree that a particular new law is wrongfully centralising power, and each raise their ‘red card’ within a three month period in order to start the process of blocking it.
  • The difficulties of constructing an alliance of 14 different parliaments across the EU in 12 weeks are obvious – national elections, recesses, domestic politics and other issues will always intervene. In 2008, William Hague dismissed the idea as impractical, 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.”
  • There’s a technical question, too, raised by Liam Fox in the Commons yesterday. The arithmetic of the red card system would apparently be the same as that used for the existing (largely useless) ‘yellow card’ system – under which every parliament in the EU has two votes. Those parliaments with only one chamber wield both those votes directly. In parliaments which have two chambers, like ours, each chamber has a vote. This, argues Fox, means that unelected peers could end up using their vote to cancel out the will of the elected House of Commons – something which looks more than likely given the pro-EU guerrilla tactics used recently by Labour and Lib Dem peers.
  • Furthermore, Vote Leave points out that to make such a rule binding, even if it was desirable, would require treaty change. Otherwise, the EU institutions could simply ignore a red card and carry on regardless. No such treaty change is proposed.
  • Ultimately, this new power would be extremely hard to use, constitutionally tricky to implement, non-binding if it was deployed – and, of course, it wouldn’t shift a single existing power back from Brussels to Britain. It only applies to new laws, insofar as it applies at all.

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