To pull a rabbit out of a hat, there has to be a hat. In a speech in January 2013, British prime minister David Cameron promised to negotiate a fundamental reworking of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. There would then be a referendum to decide whether Brits wanted to quit the union or stick with it to enjoy the “new settlement” Cameron had secured. There was bold, delusional, or dishonest (take your pick, I’ll go for dishonest) talk of strengthening the EU’s “democratic legitimacy,” of opting out of the forced march toward “ever closer union,” of power “flowing back” to the member states, of an increased role for national parliaments. Euroskeptics scoffed. They were right to. There was no hat. The EU is what it is, and what it is not is some sort of super-free-trade zone: If Cameron got what he wanted, it would no longer be the EU. The rest of the EU was never going to go along with that.
And, now, three years later, the EU’s “president,” Donald Tusk, is brandishing a draft deal that makes that all too clear. Mr. Cameron doesn’t seem too fussed. Many Britons have identified Tusk’s settlement for the malevolent nothing that it is, but their prime minister is insisting that the rabbit that they don’t see is in fact there. He is, he explains, on the edge of winning a splendid new deal for Britain.
It’s customary at times like this to drag out tired old analogies with poor Neville Chamberlain, so notoriously swindled by a wily foreigner at Munich, but that comparison doesn’t work here. No one has swindled Cameron, but if he sells this deal, he will have swindled his country.
In that speech three years ago, Cameron noted how many Britons were asking, “Why can’t we just have what we voted to join — a common market?” Well, that was what they were told they were joining. But what the U.K. actually signed up for was very different — and infinitely less benign.
Yes, “common market” was indeed what Brits used to call that mysterious structure run out of Brussels, but that was a label that concealed more than it explained. In joining what were then more accurately known as the European Communities, Britain had committed itself not only to a trade pact, but also to ever closer union. And that was a project that had been grinding on for a long time. The institutional machinery was already in place to ensure that the integration process — and with it the continuous and irreversible transfer of powers away from national democracies — only moved forward.
And that has continued. The pace may not have been certain, but the direction always was. The changes that David Cameron talked about in 2013 (and before then) were not mere technicalities. They were aimed at the essence of what the European Union, the intended graveyard of the nation-state, was supposed to be. The fact that Cameron wanted quite a few of these changes to be for the benefit of all the EU’s members made things worse still. They were not only a challenge to Brussels but to the euro-fundamentalist political class across a wide swathe of the EU. To repeat myself: The idea that Cameron would secure the unanimous agreement of Britain’s European “partners” to this (because that’s what would, under EU rules, be required) was nonsense.
Cameron, no fool, must have known this, but he was playing a different game. The referendum had essentially been forced on him by the threat to the Tories posed by UKIP’s euroskeptic insurgency. The “renegotiation” would buy valuable time to safely (fingers crossed!) see him through the 2015 election. If it turned out to be a dud, well, he would sort out the problem then.
One Tory MP described the proposed deal as ‘a slap in the face for Britain.’ More like a punch, I’d say.
And a dud is what it has turned out to be
One Tory MP described the proposed deal as “a slap in the face for Britain.” More like a punch, I’d say, made more vicious by the contempt for the electorate with which it was landed: “Hand on heart,” boasted Cameron, “I have delivered the commitments made in my manifesto.” Hand on heart . . .
Meanwhile, he did his best to stifle dissent within a Conservative party in which many were startled by Cameron’s interpretation of what they had naïvely believed was their manifesto, too.
Speaking in the House of Commons, another Conservative MP, Steve Baker, commented that the deal looked and smelt “funny.” “It might be superficially shiny on the outside, but poke it and it’s soft in the middle.” He asked the prime minister whether he would admit to having “been reduced to polishing poo?”
Cameron wouldn’t, but, dung or not, his renegotiation was always going to be a dud. Bit by bit, he had dropped or diluted his demands. The grand constitutional rearrangements were shelved and the EU’s job-destroying social legislation was left untouched. The tough talk of regaining at least some meaningful veto rights over immigration into the U.K. from elsewhere in the EU dwindled (mostly) into snarling about welfare benefits, a telling retreat. The surge of EU migrants into the U.K. (currently running at a net 180,000 people per year) has done much to fuel British euroskepticism, but Cameron was compelled to accept that he could only nibble at its edges. The free movement of people within the EU is one of the union’s fundamental principles: It wasn’t something that was going to be bartered away.
Cameron ended up asking for little. He will receive less. Thus, so far as benefits are concerned, his proposed scaling back of “in-work” benefits for EU migrants has itself been scaled back. Even that only kicks in if Britain applies an “emergency brake” in the event of undue pressure on public services or the welfare system. And who decides whether the conditions for applying that emergency brake have been met? The EU Commission. Ah.
To be fair, the Commission has said that those conditions are met in Britain — for now.
Wait, there’s more.
The definition of those EU citizens that the U.K. can turn away on the grounds that they represent a “present” threat to public policy or security will be broadened. That’s a welcome change, but it does nothing to address the way European human-rights legislation — all too often stretched beyond reasonable interpretation — can stand in the way of the deportation of equally undesirable non-EU citizens. Cameron once undertook to tackle this, too. (No matter that doing anything about it was — for reasons too complicated to go into here — a legal impossibility as long as Britain remained within the EU.) He gave up on that as well.
Meanwhile, the introduction of a “red card” system that would, under certain circumstances, allow national parliaments to block EU legislation is one of the few “constitutional” reforms to survive, but it would require the support of another 14 national parliaments before it could be played. The chances of that ever happening are, to say the least, remote.
Another area of British concern has been that the nine EU countries — including the U.K. — not in the euro zone might be ganged up upon by the 19 who are. So, if enough of the nine (it’s not indicated how many) get together, they will be allowed to give their “reasoned objection” to measures designed to integrate the euro zone further. How kind! These objections will then be “discuss[ed]” with a view to finding a “satisfactory solution.” And if that can’t be found, well, silence.
More helpfully, it’s confirmed that Britain will not have to contribute to future euro-zone bailouts, and there will be some protections for Britain’s financial sector from euro-zone regulators. There will also be a prohibition against discrimination against individuals and entities based on the fact that the member-state where they are established has not adopted the single currency, something that will, again, please the City.
Then there’s “ever closer union,” that lethal ratchet. Cameron has been handed a few words, of limited legal consequence, to the effect that the U.K. “is not committed to further political integration into the European Union,” whatever that might mean. But nothing direct is said about the European Court and its habit of interpreting EU law in a way that takes “ever closer union” as a guiding principle. This matters: In the event of a conflict between European law and the law of any member state (including Britain’s), European law prevails. As long as the EU is the EU, that, too, is not going to change.
Is the deal even binding? At the moment it’s only a draft. There will be more bargaining to come, but this proposal, or something close to it, will probably be agreed to by all the EU’s leaders, conceivably as early as next week. Once that’s happened, it can (arguably) be reversed only by a unanimous vote. Once filed with the United Nations, it is (arguably) also binding under international law.
Arguably: With the EU the devil is always in the details, and the law in this area is decidedly murky. The deal will commit the EU’s leadership to amend the EU’s secondary legislation to reflect what has been agreed, a procedure that will give the EU’s (reliably euro-fundamentalist) parliament an opportunity to weigh in. And if it declines to sign off on the deal, what then? After all, the British will have already voted.
Tusk also accepts that the EU treaties may “possibly” need amending at some (unspecified) point to reflect “a few elements” in the proposed deal. Forget that “possibly.” The word is “certainly,” and the amendments may have to cover more than a “few” elements. Amending the treaty is a lengthy, rarely straightforward business, requiring the agreement of all 28 member-states. If that’s not forthcoming — if a parliament votes it down, say, or a referendum gets in the way — what then? It’s by no means clear that Tusk’s agreement to agree would have the legal force that he and Cameron claim. Again, this would take place after (maybe years after) the British referendum, which may take place as early as June.
So, what’s a Brit to think? Well, even on the most favorable construction, the deal does next to nothing to restore Britain’s control over its borders, next to nothing to return any powers to its parliament, next to nothing to extricate Britain from the jaws of “ever closer union,” and nothing at all to restore supremacy to its courts. Adding insult to injury, what’s been thrown the country’s way are, for the most part, not even scraps but promises of scraps, promises that may well not be binding.
Apart from that, it’s a great deal. Hand on heart.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review.