2 February 2016

David Cameron’s EU renegotiation deal is a bad joke


“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” That was rather good question that John Lydon – Johnny Rotten asked – at the culmination of the last gig by the Sex Pistols at the Winterland Theater in San Francisco in 1978. Rotten felt that he and the band had been pawns in a media game designed for the benefit of their svengali manager.

I mention this because Lydon turned 60 this week and his question about feeling cheated remains pertinent in the context of the UK’s looming referendum on EU membership. Perhaps it was naive or over optimistic to expect too much from the Prime Minister’s renegotiation with the European Union (although I see Ken Clarke hailing it as a great deal, so that’s not remotely troubling…) but David Cameron did, I maintain, deserve a proper shot at it. The Ukippery approach – Britain is not in Europe (sigh, yes it is, look at the map, it has been since the Roman Empire, it is a geographical fact) is nihilistic and unappealing. If there was a chance that Cameron could persuade our neighbours and partners that what is needed is a proper two-speed EU, to reflect the realities of the Eurozone and the changes being wrought by migration, then it was worth attempting. The infamous Cameron speech at Bloomberg long before the last general election, when he promised to renegotiate and then put it to the British voters in a referendum, while short on specifics, suggested he was serious.

Now we have the draft deal. What does it amount to? I am sorry to say this, and I say this relatively politely, because this forthcoming debate should be conducted in a civilised fashion with patriots on both sides, but this deal is a bad joke. It is shameful. It is Ruritanian. It is modern British politics and officialdom at their cowardly worst. This is the ERM charade on steroids. This is most of the British political class agreeing with each other and getting it wrong, again. That being the case, it is deeply embarrassing to watch some otherwise intelligent people pretend this farce is anything other than a ludicrous confection designed to save face.

The red card for national parliaments being waved by Cameron is virtually unusable. It requires the Prime Minister of the day to arrange parliamentary rebellions in 15 other countries. That is not going to happen. That measure is also unintentionally extremely revealing, because it confirms the UK parliament as a subordinate body that has to ask the permission of those other parliaments to say we’d rather not have this law.

Meanwhile, the emergency brake on migrant benefits is, unintentionally, hilarious. Until Number 10 dreamed this one up, no-one – really, no-one – in Britain was demanding it or arguing that this matters. Migrants are not coming here for the benefits; they are coming here to work, and benefits are not a significant pull factor. If – if – you think that really you would rather not see the UK population increased by X million in the next decade because you are worried about cohesion and want managed migration controlled by parliament, then you should realise that this emergency brake on benefits is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

Of course, it will all probably be enough to win it for Remain, who can emphasise security and appeal to risk-aversion. But if it does by chance go the other way, it will be – I suspect – because the campaign ends up being framed as about border control and the inability of the Establishment to admit when asked by voters in the TV debates that really, when it comes down to it, the free movement that was introduced only relatively recently within the EU is now a fixed fact of life and it can never be addressed again.

Incidentally, I marvel at the performance so far of ministers who are privately Eurosceptic, and who have done the circuit making Eurosceptic noises for years, who now decide that they are Inners. It is, in its way, quite amusing to know that they will have to spend the next few months dodging the media or lying on television to claim this is a good deal. And then they will never, ever, be allowed to criticise the EU again on anything, because if they try it will be said by their opponents that they had the chance to stand up for what they believed in and instead they behaved like careerist scaredy cats.

On CapX, in the next five months we’ll feature writers from both sides of the argument, and doubtless some undecideds, while continuing to publish pieces on a lot more besides from the outside world. But this UK referendum campaign will be absolutely fascinating. No, really, it will be.

Iain Martin is the Editor of CapX