David Cameron looked pleased with himself this week when he stood up in the House of Commons and announced the details of his new draft deal with our European neighbours (or, as he prefers to call them, “Brussels”).
As usual, he’d been pipped to the post by his hard-right backbenchers, who had got up very early the previous morning and taken to the airwaves to rubbish comprehensively a proposal they hadn’t even seen yet. Nobody was surprised. For politicians who’ve made their political career out of pretending the EU is evil and unreformable, they have to find some way to dismiss every piece of evidence to the contrary as either pointless or illusory, and this latest reform is no exception.
So far, so predictable. But what should we on the left make of Cameron’s proposals? In reality, there are few surprises in the draft. It’s a mixture of reasonable improvements, trivial tweaks and irrelevant details. The protections for non-euro countries are genuinely useful, as is the commitment that the drive to ease regulatory burdens will “continue to ensure high regulatory standards”. On that note, we can also be proud that Labour and the trade unions have successfully headed off an attack on EU social protections and workplace rights, which was threatened by the Tories a year ago, and would have triggered a race to the bottom across Europe.
Symbolic or even trivial are the interpretations of what is meant by ‘ever-closer union’ — which confirm that it never created any legal obligation on states to integrate beyond what they explicitly agree in the treaties — and the ‘red card’ for a majority of 55% of national parliaments, when anyway a minority as low as 4 (out of 28) ministers representing those same national parliaments can in any case block decisions.
The provisions on welfare benefits for internal EU migrants, if confirmed, would represent a considerable concession by other EU countries. For in-work benefits they could lead to employed, taxpaying workers (say, an Irishman, a Brit and a Pole) doing the same job at the same workplace getting different remuneration for the same work, after tax credits are taken into account. Even if this is circumscribed, it’s understandable that other countries are not enthusiastic about this concession. Nor might British trade unions be. And, of course, they all know that this issue is a contrived one: it didn’t feature in Cameron’s initial speech setting out his intentions to seek reforms to the EU. EU migrants in Britain pay far more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services. This is a Tory party sideshow.
But we mustn’t be distracted by that sideshow and miss the big picture. The upcoming referendum is not on Cameron’s reforms — it’s on the much more important question of our entire EU membership. And on that genuinely momentous issue, there’s no room for negotiation, Cameron-style or otherwise. For jobs and trade, for workers and consumers, for our country’s security and much more besides, we must keep Britain at the heart of Europe.
There are, finally, small glimmers of hope that even Cameron himself may be belatedly coming to terms with this truth. The most telling parts of his performance in the Commons were on the occasions, scattered among eurosceptic barracking and feeble distractions, when he was confronted with questions of genuine practical importance which were only vaguely linked to the Brexit debate. What were his views, he was asked at one point, on the possibility of European countries granting ‘market economy status’ to China? Wouldn’t that hamper our ability to impose anti-dumping measures, for instance to protect British industry against aggressive Chinese trade practices?
Cameron’s response was simple. The two are unconnected. The EU has deployed trade defence measures against full market economies in the past, including even the USA. But the crucial point is this: it’s only by being part of the EU that such measures can have any useful impact at all. That’s one key reason why we have a European Union in the first place: to amplify our policy decisions through Europe’s immense collective clout on the world stage.
Are moments like these the first signs of genuine political engagement from a prime minister who has, up till now, been obsessed with trying to keep a lid on the Conservative party’s internal turmoil? After all, when the deal is finalised, perhaps as early as mid-February, he knows as well as everyone else that the hard right of his party will abandon any remaining pretence of loyalty and resume their customary all-out assault on the Great Enemy. Speaking reason to them is a waste of breath, and it always has been. British voters are — thankfully — far more sensible, and they deserve to hear the rational argument before they make their judgement.
As for Labour, our position is much stronger. We are a party united in our belief that Britain is stronger, safer and more prosperous as part of the European Union. That means we can simply ignore the Conservative party’s antics and focus the minds of voters on the real issues that affect them: jobs and growth, security at home and abroad, and strong protections for workers, consumers and the environment – all of which are enhanced by our EU membership.
Richard Corbett is the Deputy Leader of Labour MEPs. You can read his full analysis of the proposals and their implications here.
You can sign up here to receive our latest Newsletters and Op-ed articles straight to your email inbox.