David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union is not widely regarded as a resounding success. The ‘red card’ system allowing a 55% majority of national parliaments to scupper EU legislation, may, never be used as it is unlikely that a measure that gets through the legislative process would provoke such inter-state opposition. The Commission’s commitment to ‘try’ to reduce red tape could translate into little to no actual results. Freeing Britain from the commitment to ever-closer union and the official recognition that currencies other than the Euro exist may be merely symbolic.
The greatest ire-magnet has been the ‘diluted’ migration proposals agreed by Cameron and Donald Tusk. To the chagrin of opponents of ‘mass migration’, the proposals to limit in-work and child benefits for new migrants falls far short of the desire to ‘regain control of our borders’.
This was inevitable. For many Eurosceptics uncontrolled migration is the issue with the EU. Although demonstrably false, the perception that migrants ‘steal jobs’ and live off benefits are articles of faith. Equally, free movement of labour is so essential to the EU’s purpose and ideological priorities that the euro-elite would never grant any serious curtailment of migration between Member States.
Had migration not been the main emphasis of renegotiation, much more could have been achieved. Rather than quibbling over benefits, forcing Europe to confront its two-tiered reality should have been the primary focus of reform. Although the measures do not go far enough, weakening the commitment to ever-closer union, and even marginally restricting the quixotic euro-project’s ability to dominate EU policy, is a step in the right direction.
Whilst greater political integration has always been a feature of the European project, the EU’s real purpose and success has been the development of a single market where labour and capital move freely. For many Member States, and from an economic perspective, it is the latter that is the real attraction of the EU. Federalism and the Euro need not define the Union. Britain should be established as the leading voice for a looser, wider, trading bloc, which could be institutionally protected as existing in tandem with an increasingly politically integrated Eurozone.
Obsession with migration, and the perception that Britain is hostile to Europe, has directly undermined greater progress. In particular, countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, who should be allies in reform, have mostly been on the other side of the negotiation table. Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Croatia, are sympathetic to a Single Market that is both deeper and less regulated, but have been wary of Britain’s apparently antagonistic approach.
Not only has Cameron secured weaker reforms than he may have done, Britain’s position in Europe will remain less central than it could be. Rather than being an essential counter-balance to quasi-hegemonic Germany, protectionist France, and integration-infatuated Belgium, Britain is at risk of having exhausted its political capital on insufficient reform.