So, finally it has arrived, nearly twenty years in the making - the Conservative party's great EU reform package. The Conservative Party voted against the last three Treaties (Lisbon, Nice, Amsterdam) and fought four elections in a row (1997, 2001, 2005, 2010) promising to repatriate significant powers from the EU.
In 2007, David Cameron visited the Czech Republic and proclaimed that the EU was "the last gasp of an outdated ideology". Steve Baker MP, a leading light in the Conservatives for Britain group, recalls how the speech inspired him to become an MP. In the same article, Baker also stated "It is time for us to recover our self-government".
In January 2013, David Cameron told us in his Bloomberg speech that he wanted to agree fundamental, far-reaching change.
Camerons reform process got off to an inauspicious start in Nov 2015. He announced reform was to be sought in 4 key baskets and insisted a new membership deal must be legally binding. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP described the reform package as "thin gruel". Bernard Jenkin, another Conservative, asked: "Is that it? Is that the sum total of the government’s position in this renegotiation?". Cameron sent a letter to Donald Tusk outlining his reform requests.
However, the sense of disappointment then was as nothing compared to the reaction this week, when Cameron & Donald Tusk published the draft agreement. Jacob Rees-Mogg commented that "the thin gruel has been watered down". The Sun newspaper headline succinctly declared "It Stinks". It would be fair to say that this reform package was not worth the 20 year wait.
Reviewing the reform packageThere have been plenty of posts in the blogsphere that have panned the reform package: EU Referendum a list of empty promises; LostLeonardo A Reformed EU? ; Pete North Cameron's red card is a political decoy ; Brexit Door This is not the deal you’re looking for…..move along. The mainstream Conservative commentator Andrew Lillico also concludes that the reform package amounts to no change in his blog post. I'll briefly review the 4 "baskets" in the reform package and give my own thoughts:
1) Economic Governance. Tusk's response recognises that the Euro is not the only currency in the EU, which our opt-out on the Euro already makes explicit. Cameron sought protections for non-Euro states, although the measures listed are already provided - so no change from current situation.
2) Competitiveness. This is pure fluff, to pack out the thin package. The EU is always promising more competitiveness. Who would argue for less competitiveness ?
3) Sovereignty: After a general discourse on the meaning of "Ever Closer Union", Tusk eventually recognises that the UK "is not committed to further political integration". Left unsaid is the fact that the UK remains fully signed up to the EU treaties, which have included "Ever Closer Union" as far back as the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Tusk also notes that the competencies conferred on the Union can only be modified by treaty with unanimous agreement. So no repatriation of any powers - no change from current situation.
Tusk goes on to describe what has been dubbed "the Red Card". The procedure is very limited in scope and only applies to areas where the EU does not have exclusive competence and where the draft law is not compatible with the principle of subsidiarity. The "Red Card" will require 55 % of the votes allocated to the national Parliaments to block a proposal, i.e. 14 national parliaments need to review and reject the proposal within a 12 week period. In practice, this is simply a minor tweak to the existing "Orange Card" procedure (Protocol 2 of the Consolidated Treaties). William Hague lambasted this procedure in 2008, quipping that "even if the European Commission proposed the slaughter of the first-born" it would be difficult to block the proposal ! The Orange card proposal has only been activated twice since it was introduced. The Red Card is nothing new of any substance.
4) Immigration. Or as Tusk entitles this section in the draft agreement, Social benefits & Free Movement - highlighting the limited scope of the agreement.
Sending child benefits abroad has not been stopped, but the payment will be indexed according to the home country - in some cases benefit payments may increase.
Cameron's infamous "emergency brake" is a brake on welfare payments, not immigration. Only the EU commission can exercise the brake - all the UK can do is ask the EU commission to consider its case. If the EU commission agrees to use the brake, it will be for limited duration (no mention of 4 years in the agreement) and will only stop payments for new migrants entering the workforce. So if the UK can convince the EU commission that 999,999 migrants broke the UK welfare system, the 1 millionth migrant won't get benefits - for a while. Wow.
Now whether or not you think the issue of migrant benefits is crucial (for the record - I don't), this is a miserable failure on Cameron's part.
Finally, we have the issue of transitional arrangements, where immigration from new states joining the EU may be initially capped. Tusk simply states "the position expressed by the United Kingdom in favour of such transitional measures is noted". I recognise that tone from the workplace - it is when your superior is telling you to go away.
Cameron defending the indefensibleJacob Rees-Mogg is too generous. This is not watered-down thin gruel. It is not even clear soup. It is bread and water rations - minus the bread.
Far from being legally binding, this is simply a draft agreement with provisional statements, In a number of cases, treaty change is required to implement the proposal, but the agreement simply suggests wording for a future treaty, which may or may not be adopted as and when a new treaty is developed.
The agreement has still to be reviewed and agreed by the 27 other EU Member States and could be unpicked at the upcoming European Council meeting later this month. President Hollande of France has made clear that the UK will not have a veto on euro zone policies and he also ruled out further negotiations over reforms. The EU Parliament could veto the emergency brake on migrants' benefits after the referendum.
Will there be "rabbits from the hat" ? There may be some tinkering with Parliamentary legislature, e.g. amending the 1972 European Communities Act to state that Parliament is sovereign over the EU; amending the Human Rights legislation and enacting a UK bill of rights. These are empty gestures and would fail as soon as anything beyond the EU treaties was attempted. The only way to escape the judicial supremacy of the EU as conferred by treaty is to leave the EU - as Cameron well knows.
Could Cameron unveil "Associate membership" ? Since the next treaty appears to have been postponed, Cameron can only offer this as a label to put on his dismal reform package. In practice, Associate Membership is simply a recognition that we have been consigned to the periphery of the EU, unloved and without influence, until the UK is finally ready to commit to political integration.
Only the UK & Denmark have Euro opt-outs, all other member states are obliged by existing treaty obligations to join the Euro. So when the EU is 26 Euro states vs 2 non-Euro states, how much influence will we have ? How long before we are told that to have any influence we must commit fully to the project and join the Euro ?
In short Cameron has a deal that offers nothing and is not even secure. Yet he has the gall to claim that the deal is the "best of both worlds" and provides a "massive return of power to the UK". Tony Blair looks like an honest broker by comparison.
Cameron's reform package versus the "Norway" optionAs covered in previous posts, Cameron has derided the "Norway option", but is now looking exposed as his own offering comes under scrutiny. Defending his package in the House of Commons, he again made false claims regarding the "Norway option",
- Norway pays more per head than the UK - Wrong. Norway pays about half the UK level.
- Norway adopts all EU laws - Wrong. Norway adopts about 1 in 5 EU laws.
Even worse, Cameron's "emergency brake" is simply a roundabout way of executing Articles 112-113 in the EEA agreement. Norway and other EFTA / EEA states can use these measures unilaterally. Little Lichtenstein has used these measures to suspend immigration flows. Little Iceland used these measures to suspend free movement of capital during its banking crisis. The UK with all its "influence" has to ask the EU commission if it might consider exercising these measures on its behalf in a very limited manner.
In a previous post, we looked at a Norway option scorecard. Here is a revised scorecard, which emphasises how much better the Norway option is than Cameron's deal.
ConclusionIt is remarkable just how poor Cameron's deal is. Cameron is defending the deal using a pre-prepared script, but even he doesn't sound convinced. He is taking us for fools in declaring that this is a good deal.
I read this as the EU putting the UK and Cameron in their place. There is no reform, there is no prospect of reform - take it or leave it. If we do take this deal, then the EU has our measure - we can never expect to be listened to again.
From this we can conclude that the idea of a "reformed" EU is dead - in fact it was still-born. We can also take it as read that the established political elite will use any lie to protect their own careers and connections - as discussed by SemiPartisanPolitics on his blog.
So we are faced with a very clear choice :
If you are entirely happy with an unreformed EU, with the UK stuck between marginalisation or integration within the EU, with no prospect of regaining UK self-government, with the EU speaking for the UK in the world, with the continuing and unending hegemony of the Blair / Mandelson / Cameron / Osborne political elite & their SW1 media chums - then by all means vote Remain.
Everyone else, those who see the need for change, I urge you to take this chance. It is probably the best & only chance for self-government and a democratic revival in the UK. It is also probably the last chance to save Europe from the EU. There is a visible and safe alternative - you can and should Vote Leave.