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When even Eurosceptic new Polish ministers are highly sceptical about your ideas for reforming the European Union, and you are a British Prime Minister pledged to hold a referendum on the results of said reform, then you’ve got a problem.
This is the dilemma facing David Cameron, whose EU renegotiation tour hit fresh turbulence this week. By now the Prime Minister was supposed to have secured concessions that he could brandish as evidence of the EU submitting to the British government’s demands. But his already troubled and much-hyped renegotiation tour of the EU hit yet more turbulence this week, when the Poles told him that the UK request that migrants should wait four years to claim any benefits in Britain is not on.
One of the numerous mysteries about this British renegotiation is the elevation by Number 10 of the benefit sanction to the status of key demand. No Eurosceptic – certainly not the many I have met – has ever argued that this is what the great European debate is really about. Yet, Cameron’s team seems to have been persuaded by opinion polls that the British referendum, which will happen between next Spring and the end of 2017, will swing on benefits.
Polling can be useful; it can also be dangerous when followed too slavishly. If the Cameron team continues to focus on talking about and testing, in market research terms, the idea of other people (from abroad) getting money, then you will find pretty quickly that voters do not like it. So why scratch the itch? Voters approve or disapprove in isolation of all manner of things, such as death sentences for murders. Part of the job of leadership is surely to lift the the sights of voters to the horizon.
The footling row on migrants and benefits is a farce. It becomes increasingly clear that the referendum will not rest on a renegotiation that is going nowhere fast. It is going to come down to a binary choice between staying in the European Union, largely unchanged because serious reform on the British model is unlikely, and leaving to forge a new, looser relationship with our European partners.
That being so, the Prime Minister should admit there will no great victory from these talks. Call it a day – and call the referendum as soon as practical.
The phoney renegotiation and benefits row is also a distraction from the major themes that the pro-EU camp should be pushing. Even Eurosceptics acknowledge that the migration crisis and the terrorist threat raises the possibility that more cooperation is needed to defend a common European southern border. This case – the positive case for collaboration – is not one the Remain campaign can make at the moment, because the government clings to the fiction that a changed EU is on the way. Instead Remain concentrates on frankly incredible claims about jobs and the risks of Brexit.
It need not necessarily have been this way. When the Prime Minister announced before the last election that he planned a renegotiation and then a vote on the results, it was possible a two-speed EU would be properly on offer. That moment of opportunity is gone. The referendum is what it is – in or out, remain or leave. It is time for the UK government to get on with it, so that Britain (and Europe) can get on with what comes afterwards.