Everything you need to know about Cameron’s EU deal in five minutes
So Cameron's got his deal, has he?
He's got a deal, whether it's the one he said he wanted back in 2013 is another matter. There's loads of stuff left by the wayside, like an 'emergency break' on immigration, or 'repatriation of competences', or the social chapter, or a veto on Eurozone policy. Cameron's been hammering away at this for a couple of years and it looks like his demands have shrunk.
So what has he got?
Well there's four 'baskets'. Yeah, both Cameron and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, insist on calling them baskets. No-one knows why. Some of them have nothing but a pile of promises in them, some of them have concrete policy. In order of vacuousness, they're: competitiveness, the Eurozone, subsidiarity and immigration/benefits.
Competitiveness is the most vacuous? Who'd have thought.
Quite. There'll be all sorts of declarations committing Europe to competitiveness, but there's no mention of an actual plan. That may or may not be a problem, depending on your perspective. The Centre for European Reform argued this week that Europe actually is pretty efficient, or at least many of its member states are. You can agree with that or not – but whatever your view, there's nothing in that agreement which would shake up the status quo. Love it or loathe it, things look like they'll carry on mostly as before.
What's this Eurozone stuff?
This has been bothering Cameron and George Osborne for a while. Their fear is that Eurozone rules, for instance on financial services, can go through for the Eurozone and affect the position of the City, but without Britain having any power to control it. Once upon a time he wanted a British veto, but now he's given up on that. It’s not entirely clear what he demanded instead though. At least with the veto you knew what he wanted, even if he was never going to get it. There are several core principles laid out in the Tusk letter, but they're all already the case. There's not much to see here really.
So where does that leave the Eurozone question?
Nowhere really. Europe had already recognised that it was developing a two-speed system of core Eurozone countries committed to further economic and political integration on one hand and then everyone else on the other. That's still the case. There are plenty of areas where this situation could become really troublesome. Britain fears a caucus of Eurozone countries outvoting everyone else in the European Council. It’s a valid concern but it's hard to see how you could really prevent it. If there are big ideas to do so they haven't been presented yet. Maybe they'll pop up in the coming days.
So far it's zero out of two. Has Cameron actually got an EU deal or not?
Kind of. The next two sections have a bit more substance.
What's next? Subsidiarity? What even is that?
It's an old Catholic term for a form of devolution – basically that decisions should be taken at the most local possible level. The EU has this too. But eurosceptics typically argue that, as a big transnational organisation, it sucks up more and more power for itself.
So what has Cameron secured here?
A red card system. There was already a yellow card system, and now there's a red card one.
OK, look. To explain that we're going to have to do something really grubby and unusual. We’re going to have to look at how European law is made.
Please don’t do that.
I'll make it as painless as possible. Imagine a triangle. The points of the triangle are The European Commission, the European parliament and the Council of Ministers. A European law starts with the European Commission.
Where do they get the idea from?
Consultation with national governments. These guys are always flying about to European capitals and having chats with officials in relevant ministries about whether they envisage legislation on a given subject. Or they talk to a minister's official while they’re in Europe for a meeting. The Commission is a weird entity. It’s not like a government and it's not quite like a civil service. It’s weak and powerful at the same time and a lot depends on the personality of the person running it and individual commissioners. But fundamentally, it only proposes ideas – it doesn't decide them.
So who does decide on them?
The other two points of the triangle. First, it goes to the European parliament. A specialist committee writes up a report and then MEPs vote on it. Very often they'll want changes from the Commission proposal. The Commission will then say whether it can make them. Usually they do so. Sometimes there's a bit of back and forth. Then it goes to the Council of Ministers.
These are meetings of ministers from the EU's member states. So somewhere in Europe there's an education council which Nicky Morgan sits on, or a health council which Jeremy Hunt sits on.
Precisely. It’s OK though, ministers will often just send their officials to represent them. So those councils meet to chat over developments in their remit and look at any legislation which comes under their purview. They vote and then parliament takes the final vote.
Purview. Very posh. So what's this got to do with subsidiarity again?
Well subsidiarity is supposed to be embedded into every stage of that process. The commission forms a judgement about whether a law is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. Parliament then does the same. They can say the principle of subsidiarity has been breached and, if necessary, take it all the way to the European court of justice. Members of the Council of Ministers can do the same.
OK so what’s this yellow card thing?
The yellow card system was developed under the Lisbon treaty. If a third or more national parliaments say a law contradicts the subsidiarity principle it goes back to be reconsidered. They can eventually take this to the court of justice. But in truth it’s really rare. It’s happened twice so far.
So what has Cameron secured?
A red flag.
That sounds impressive.
It does, doesn't it? But then when your yellow card isn’t used one might question how much use the red one will be. It states that if 55% of national parliaments object, the plan goes back. But what happens then? Does it die, or is it like under the current system, where they merely have to think again? Tusk's language is predictably vague. Principles will be "duly taken into account" and then "appropriate arrangements" will be made.
This is all a nonsense isn't it?
Probably. You can look at it two ways: either the EU is so good at respecting subsidiarity that objections are very rarely made or it is so devious in preventing objections that hardly any are able to emerge. But either way, it's hard to see that this red card system will be significantly different to what already exists.
Dear God are we nearly done? I thought you said this was going to take five minutes.
I lied. I thought it would make a more compelling headline. Saying 'everything you need to know about Cameron's EU deal in seven minutes' sounds rubbish. There's just the benefits and immigration bit to go.
Get on with it.
This is the area where Cameron has arguably achieved the most. Most analysts thought he'd only be allowed to block migrant benefits for two years and that anything more would be considered discrimination. It looks like they’ve done a deal where he can limit benefits for four years, on the condition that a graded system allows them to increase the benefits they get throughout that period. It’s a pretty major win.
Will it limit EU immigration?
Not in the slightest. Study after study has found that immigrants don’t come to Britain to claim benefits. They come to work. But it's still the meatiest Cameron proposal and most people would probably consider it largely fair.
Won't eastern European countries cause a stink about it?
Yes. The plans needs to be accepted by everyone at a European Council meeting. That's like one of the Council of Ministers meetings but for the heads of state and governments – prime ministers, presidents and all that. Poland, which is one of the influential mid-level European powers, is pretty angry about this. But Cameron is in Warsaw now trying to offer something in return for their support. In all likelihood he'll agree to press for Nato troops to be stationed in Poland to guard against Russia. Cameron will be hoping he doesn't need to offer one of these little bonbons to all the EU's member states.
Who else is a threat to the plan?
Well, funnily enough, Portugal has been very vocal in its criticism. It has a left-wing eurosceptic government, so they're not too supportive of cutting benefits or immigration and they don’t much care if Britain falls out of the EU.
Can Cameron offer them anything?
Not really, but the chances are they won't want to waste valuable political capital digging their heels in on this one. When it comes to the crunch, Cameron is likely to get his plan through.
Except that the plan is largely empty.
Well this has been fun.
Imagine spending two years negotiating it. But anyway, all we’ve really talked about here is if Cameron has got what he wanted. That's the wrong question, really. This is more about internal Conservative politics than it is Britain's relationship with Europe. The right question is: will it be enough to get Tory MPs to support him?
If you are a eurosceptic out of principle, there's nothing here that will change your mind. If you're more pragmatic, it’s possible it would convince you. But really, it's pretty tepid stuff. Cameron will need all his charm and influence to get them on board.
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