Cameron’s EU deal has all the substance of confetti at an autumn wedding
We're already forgetting about the EU deal. Even though it was only unveiled on Friday night, it's been quickly eclipsed by Boris Johnson's manoeuvring and the usual Tory civil war on Europe. Give it a few days and you'll barely remember it happened.
That's just as well, because the deal itself is typical of the way Cameron does politics. It is an advertising billboard for a product which doesn't exist.
Cameron claims to have secured the UK "special" status within the EU where it, and it alone, is not subject to 'ever-closer union' requirements. "It is recognised that the United Kingdom is not committed to further political integration in the European Union," the deal states. "References to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom."
It sounds impressive, until you consider that this is merely a reformulation of a statement the European Council put out in June 2014:
"The concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further". [My italics]
Cameron and his European negotiation partners treat the public like a fool, gambling that they can sell them a rewording as a fundamental constitutional development. It is nothing of the sort.
But even if that June 2014 statement didn't exist, the deal would still be meaningless. 'Ever-closer union' does not have any direct legal force, except for arguably – and this really is arguable – giving the European Court of Justice a sense of narrative and perceived political purpose. And even if that weren't the case, removing it now does not remove existing EU obligations.
One of Cameron's missions was to safeguard countries outside the Eurozone from the decisions made by those inside it. His great accomplishment here is that non-eurozone countries can force a debate among EU leaders on Eurozone decisions they're concerned about.
This does not address the problem Cameron and George Osborne have long worried about – that a caucus of Eurozone countries can outvote everyone else on the European Council. That remains the case. It is the case almost by definition.
Cameron's victory in securing a mechanism which triggers a debate is eerily reminiscent of the petitions system for the UK parliament, which is also functionally meaningless. Organisations are happy with debates. They just don't like to change things. The debate mechanism here is clearly a sop meant to give Cameron something he can point to back home. It won't stop any Eurozone law, regardless of the effect it has on the UK.
Cameron's most substantial accomplishment comes on benefits, but take a magnifying glass to it and it falls apart under observation. The prime minister claims he can reduce immigration to the UK and control benefit spending by reducing benefits given to the EU migrants who come here.
Just before his Bloomberg speech, Cameron said he wanted powers to impose an 'emergency brake' on immigration altogether. Then Angela Merkel got on the phone and told him he'd never get that, so perhaps he should stop mentioning it. He duly did. Now the emergency brake refers to stopping benefits for EU migrants for a set amount of time when they arrive in a new EU member state, if the member state can prove that it is suffering a harsh drain on its welfare provisions and job market due to immigration. The UK will qualify automatically for this status.
Cameron wanted the emergency rules to apply for 13 years for all EU migrants. Instead it will last for seven and apply only to EU migrants arriving from now on. The emergency brake can't be extended.
There is a lot that is wrong or misleading about this proposal. Firstly and most importantly, it will do nothing to stop immigration. People come to the UK because they want jobs, not benefits. There are innumerable studies demonstrating this.
None of them come from the Westminster government, of course, because it apparently has never bothered to try to calculate how much EU migrants cost. Treasury minister Lord O'Neill was asked by Labour peer Lord Beecha last week to reveal "the annual benefits paid to EU migrants in the UK and the contribution of those individuals to the public purse through income tax receipts and VAT". His answer? "The information is not available."
The government has tried previously to pretend that 40% of recent European Economic Area (EEA) migrants claim UK benefits, but the UK Statistics Authority said the data it was based on – an ad hoc Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) release – was "unsatisfactory".
But if we jokingly assume for a moment that the DWP is a paragon of reliable statistical data, it itself found that just 2.2% of the people who claim welfare benefits in the UK are EU nationals (114,000 out of five million).
Put simply: EU migrants don't come here to claim benefits, no serious people believe they do, and reducing their benefits entitlement will do nothing to stop them coming here.
So if the UK can't show that EU migrants are putting our welfare system at risk, how is the emergency brake being activated? It’s being done as a favour. The seven year period is exactly tallied to the period Britain allowed eastern European new member state citizens in without controls. So, fine – it's a favour. What’s a few mythical emergency brakes between friends?
Except that there are potential European repercussions which follow from what is being agreed here. It's one of the rare areas where there is a concrete proposal in the deal – albeit one based on fiction. Other member states will be able to apply to the European Council for an emergency brake, probably through a qualified majority vote on a proposal from the Commission (read this for more on how the Council, the Commission and the parliament work). The European parliament will vote on the mechanism which is used, but it’s not clear if it'll have a part in deciding whether a member state qualifies.
Here's the problem: the first country to use the emergency brake – the UK – will hit the brake without there being an emergency. After all, the brakes should only apply when "an exceptional situation exists on a scale that affects essential aspects of [a member state's] social security system, including the primary purpose of its in-work benefits system, or which leads to difficulties which are serious and liable to persist in its employment market, or are putting an excessive pressure on the proper functioning of its public services".
As Jonathan Portes has pointed out, none of this describes the UK in 2016. In fact, it is quite the opposite: radically reducing immigration would be likely to affect our social security system, lead to employment market problems and put excess pressure on the functioning of our public services.
"After all, London schools are outperforming the rest of the country by miles, partly because of immigration. NHS waiting times are actually lower in areas with higher immigration. And EU migrants pay more into the welfare system than they take out. As for the labour market… Crisis, what crisis? And if it doesn’t apply now, when would it?"
This is the Bizarro world of policy-making: we are blaming the thing which is solving a problem for creating it. Everything means the opposite of what is really the case.
Any Brit is used to the sort of debate by now, one driven by Daily Express headlines and shrieking half-mad backbench politicians. But this is something else. We're now exporting it to the rest of the continent. Any member state should be able to apply an emergency brake, because the first and only instance of it being used sets a benchmark so low as to be comically absurd.
Finally Cameron claims to have won a victory on child benefit being paid by the UK for children overseas when their parents work in the UK. He didn’t get the ban he wanted, but did manage to get the payments indexed to the standard of living in the home country.
Couple of problems here: Firstly, EU discrimination rules means this will inevitably end up being applied to UK citizens living abroad and sending child benefit back to their kids in the UK, so that should be subtracted from the savings it will apparently secure.
Secondly: What tiny savings they are. It's estimated that £27 million is paid out in this way per year, compared to a total child benefit bill of £12.22 billion. That's 0.22%.
The Scottish referendum cost £15.8 million, so if the EU referendum goes the same way merely holding it will use over 50% of the savings supposedly won by the measure.
The EU deal has almost nothing of substance within it. Its proposals address problems which do not exist with solutions which will not work. The sums it seeks to save are so miniscule as to be laughable. And where it does have potential far-reaching ramifications, they are to entrench Britain's tabloid myth-making into the regulatory structure of the European Union.
Ministers will not say that it is meaningless, because they need to pretend it has worth in order to justify their campaign to remain. Liberal and left-wing europhiles will not say it is meaningless because they are in the same cynical game as Cameron is in – pretending it's worthwhile in order to persuade the public to vote In. And right-wing eurosceptics are unlikely to say that is meaningless, because to do so tacitly acknowledges that all the arguments about benefit tourism and the damage of immigration they’ve been peddling for years are clearly nonsense. It’s a conspiracy of silence around an empty document.
The only things we can really learn from the EU deal is that Cameron is a terrible negotiator and that our political discourse has lost all contact with reality.
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