Most people think that David Cameron has gone from big demands to little demands in his European negotiations. He promised the referendum as a way of fending off Ukip before the last election. Therefore, we assume that he started off pretending that he could restore the supremacy of the British parliament and turn our relationship with the EU into a free-trade agreement, and that he is now pretending the minimal, cosmetic changes that he has (nearly) agreed are a big deal.
As with most things in life, it is not that simple. It is true that Cameron is trying to do the two things that Harold Wilson did before him. He is trying to keep a divided party together, and he is trying to persuade people who say they want to leave the EU to vote to stay in. It is also true that the changes that Wilson secured – mainly better terms for the import of New Zealand butter – were not fundamental.
The conventional view is, however, mistaken, in that Cameron’s demands have become more substantial since he promised a referendum back in January 2013. One is struck today by how airy-fairy that speech was. The only definite demand in it was that Britain should be excluded from the aspiration of “ever-closer union”, one of the founding phrases of the EU. Presumably, Cameron had already established that such an exclusion would be possible.
It was not until his speech on immigration in November 2014 that the Prime Minister set out demands that other European leaders would find hard to accept. The main one was that new arrivals in Britain from other EU member countries would have to pay taxes here for four years before they would be entitled to claim in-work benefits.
For Cameron, who has long thought of himself as a Eurosceptic, this seems an unexpected issue to become his New Zealand butter. For a long time, the demand for a referendum on Europe concealed a range of motives of those who wanted to leave. For some, it was a leftover of the campaign against the euro, which ceased to be a possibility (if it ever was one) in 2003.
A core group (John Redwood was out and about last week) is concerned about national sovereignty. For them, no renegotiation makes sense unless it becomes a free-trade deal, in which case our status would be like that of Switzerland, which is not an EU member. A larger number of voters are hostile to the EU because they don’t like the free movement of workers.
This began to be economically significant after 2004, when 10 more countries joined the EU. It came as a welcome surprise to hear Ed Balls, who was then economic adviser to Chancellor Gordon Brown, admit at our class on “The Blair Years” at King’s College London last week: “When it came to the expansion of the EU in 2004, we didn’t see the extent to which low-wage people would move. Fundamentally, we didn’t think they would.”
It took a while for the reaction to this influx to take political shape. The causes of the rise of Ukip were almost as complex as those of the First World War, but immigration from the rest of the EU was one of them.
It is curious, though, that when Cameron finally conceded the referendum, he was so unclear about what it was he didn’t like about the EU and what his renegotiation would put right. The imminence of a general election sharpened his sense of what public opinion wanted. Namely, action to curb the free movement of EU workers – a feature that hadn’t been a problem before.
Hence Cameron’s November 2014 speech, and the nub of the renegotiation, which is probably being decided this weekend. When the Prime Minister said on Friday that what was on offer was “not good enough”, I heard the unspoken “but it soon will be”. I suspect he has known a deal could be done since November 2014, because, if the other leaders don’t agree to a four-year ban on benefits, he can always do it anyway so long as it applies to British citizens too – and there could be ways of compensating them. Economists say such a ban won’t have much effect on the numbers coming, but it might have some effect. What is more, our ComRes poll this month found 84 per cent supported it in its own right. Cameron would prefer the EU to offer it to him, as it seems close to doing, with a plan confusingly called an “emergency brake”. (That used to mean a limit on the numbers allowed in, an idea that is still beyond the pale.)
This seems an arbitrary way to decide great questions of national destiny. But, equally, you could look at it as the product of a well-functioning democracy. Cameron reflects the will of the British people, which is why, if he secures the deal that he has always thought possible, he should be confident of winning the referendum.
In exam questions comparing conviction politicians and those, such as Wilson, who bend in order better to reflect the democratic will, Cameron’s EU policy presents him as a fine example of the bendy kind.
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