It’s been a non-stop fortnight for David Cameron, who last week had been locked in desperate talks with leaders of European Union countries as he tried to hammer out a new deal for Britain. It took 48 hours, most of which were spent half awake and fuelled by coffee, but late on Friday evening he was finally able to announce that a deal had been made.
With a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU scheduled to take place on June 23rd, and with polls consistently indicating that there is little difference in the support currently enjoyed by the “remain” and “leave” camps, what is in Cameron’s deal and, most importantly, what does it mean for Britain?
One of the biggest talking points surrounding the new agreement is the deal struck on migrant benefits – an issue that provoked consistent hostility from Eastern European leaders, many of whom were worried about the impact that any sort of crackdown on benefits would have on their citizens currently working in Britain.
Heading into the discussions, Cameron had indicated that he wanted to be able to implement a four-year freeze on in-work benefits for EU workers, but, concerned about the response that these demands might receive from the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), Cameron conceded that any changes would only apply to new arrivals and not EU citizens already working in Britain.
Due to the Visegrád Group’s hostility to the planned measures, it was always unlikely that Cameron’s initial wishes were to be granted. Instead, what he was able to achieve was the ability to apply for an “emergency brake” on migrant benefits, which would allow Britain to temporarily suspend payments if they were “putting excessive pressure on the proper functioning of its public services”.
However, almost half of Cameron’s time in Brussels was spent haggling over how long this emergency brake would last. Cameron had indicated that he wanted it to be applicable for 13 years, whilst the Visegrád Group, who were always on the opposite side of the argument to the British Prime Minister, were initially willing for it to last for only five years.
In the end, the European Council came to an agreement of seven years. This emergency brake cannot be extended, and the Prime Minister is able to use it just once.
Another important segment of Cameron’s deal on migrant payments is the issue of child benefits. Heading into this week’s discussions, Cameron had announced that he was seeking an end to the practice of British-based EU workers sending payments to children living outside of the United Kingdom.
However, as was the case with the emergency brake on in-work benefits, the Visegrád Group were vehemently opposed to this treaty change, and, with the possibility of an almighty row firmly in mind, Cameron watered down his demands on the eve of the summit. Instead, the PM indicated his wish to see child benefit payments indexed to the standard of living in the country where the EU worker’s children are based.
Despite Cameron’s concession, this issue still proved to be one of the main disagreements between Britain and the Visegrád Group. Nevertheless, after plenty of wrangling and haggling, the countries eventually came to an agreement to index child benefits to the child’s home nation. Once the legislation has been officially passed, this will immediately apply to new arrivals to Britain, whilst EU citizens currently working in the country will be subject to the treaty change from January 1st 2020.
“Ever closer union”
A consistent demand of Cameron’s heading into this week’s summit – and one that has peppered several of his past speeches on the EU – was that Britain should be excluded from the declaration in EU treaties to “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.
By achieving this ambition, Cameron has arguably secured his biggest win. Indeed, the new language will explicitly indicate that “the United Kingdom is not committed to further political integration in the European Union”. The agreement text goes on to say that “references to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom”, just in case there was any ambiguity surrounding the issue.
The deal also includes a “red card” system, which would allow EU legislation to be overturned if opposed by 55% of the member states.
Further to this, Cameron gained a surprising victory on the issue of protection for non-Eurozone countries against regulation made by those within the monetary union. As one of just nine EU member states not using the Euro, Britain has often been in a battle against further Eurozone integration.
Before the discussions began, the Chancellor, George Osborne, indicated that he and Cameron, as the spearheads of the government’s EU renegotiation process, wanted a treaty change that made sure that “Britain can’t be discriminated against because it’s not part of the Euro, can’t pick up the bill for Eurozone bailouts, [and] crucially can’t have imposed on it changes the Eurozone want to make without our consent”.
In the end, all 28 EU member states came to an agreement that only one non-Eurozone member would be needed to temporarily block new regulation by referring it to an EU summit.
Furthermore, the agreement also includes a pledge that EU bailouts “will not entail budgetary responsibility for member states whose currently is not the Euro”, a significant victory for Cameron given his opposition to British taxpayers’ money being used to fund bailouts.
It is now down to the British electorate to decide whether or not Cameron has secured a deal that is good enough to keep the country in the EU.
After meeting with his Cabinet on Saturday morning, the Prime Minister announced that, as expected, a referendum will take place on June 23rd, and it will be a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the British public to decide whether or not their future lies within a reformed EU.
Cameron may have secured what are, in his eyes, significant changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU, but only time will tell if he has done enough to convince voters.
With the polls consistently indicating that the “remain” and “leave” camps are enjoying similar support, and with both of the main political parties split over what is best for Britain’s future, a fierce battle is set to rage over the next four months.