It’s been a non-stop week for David Cameron, who had been locked in desperate talks with leaders of European Union (EU) countries as he tried to hammer out a new deal for Britain.
It took 48 hours, most of which were spent half awake and fuelled by coffee, but late on Friday evening he was finally able to announce that a deal had been reached.
With a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU scheduled for June 23rd, and with polls consistently indicating that there’s little difference betwen the “stay” and “leave” camps, we examine what is in Cameron’s deal and, most importantly, what it means for Britain?
One of the biggest talking points is the deal on migrant benefits, where Cameron found consistent hostility from Eastern European leaders, many of whom were worried about the impact that any crackdown on benefits would have on their citizens currently working in Britain.
Heading into the discussions, Cameron indicated he wanted a four-year freeze on in-work benefits for EU workers in the UK, but, concerned about the response from the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), he conceded that any changes would only apply to new arrivals and not EU citizens already here.
The Visegrád Group’s hostility meant it was always unlikely that Cameron’s initial demands would be granted; what he was able to get an “emergency brake” on migrant benefits, which would allow Britain to temporarily suspend payments if they were “putting excessive pressure on the proper functioning of its public services”, as stated in the agreed text.
However, almost half of Cameron’s time in Brussels was spent haggling over how long this emergency brake would last: Cameron wanted it to be apply for 13 years, whilst the Visegrád Group were only willing for it to last for five years.
In the end, the European Council, made up of the heads of state of the EU members, agreed to seven years, and the emergency brake cannot be extended, and it can only be used once.
Another important part of Cameron’s deal is child benefits. Heading into this week’s discussions, the PM announced he wanted to stop EU workers in Britain sending payments to children living outside the country.
However, as with the emergency brake on in-work benefits, the Visegrád Group were vehemently opposed to this, so Cameron watered down his demands on the eve of the summit and instead suggested child benefit be indexed to the standard of living in the country where an EU worker’s children are based.
Despite Cameron’s concession, this issue still proved to be one of the main sticking points with the Visegrád Group. However, after plenty of wrangling and haggling, they did eventually agree to index payments to the child’s home nation.
Once the legislation has been passed, it will immediately apply to new arrivals in Britain, whilst EU citizens currently working in the UK will be subject to the change from January 1, 2020.
“Ever closer union”
One of Cameron’s consistent demand – and one that has peppered several of his speeches on the EU – was that Britain should be excluded from the declaration in EU treaties that commits member states to “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.
Here Cameron has arguably secured his biggest win, as the new language will explicitly indicate that “the United Kingdom is not committed to further political integration in the European Union”.
The agreement text also states “references to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom”, just in case there was any ambiguity surrounding the issue.
The deal also includes a “red card” system, which would allow EU legislation to be overturned if backed by 55 per cent of member states.
Cameron gained a surprising victory on the issue of protection for non-Eurozone countries against regulation made by those within the monetary union.
As one of the nine EU member states not using the euro, Britain has often been seen to be in a battle against further Eurozone integration.
Before the discussions began, the Chancellor, George Osborne, indicated that he and Cameron, as the spearheads of the government’s EU renegotiation process, wanted a treaty change that made sure that “Britain can’t be discriminated against because it’s not part of the Euro, can’t pick up the bill for Eurozone bailouts, [and] crucially can’t have imposed on it changes the Eurozone want to make without our consent”.
In the end, all 28 EU member states came to an agreement that only one non-Eurozone member would be needed to temporarily block new regulation by referring it to an EU summit.
The agreement also includes a pledge that EU bailouts “will not entail budgetary responsibility for member states whose currency is not the euro”, a significant victory for Cameron given his opposition to British taxpayers’ money being used to fund bailouts.
It is now down to British voters to decide whether Cameron has secured a deal that is good enough to keep the country in the EU.
After meeting his cabinet on Saturday morning, the Prime Minister announced that a referendum will happen on June 23rd, and it will be a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the British public to decide whether or not their future lies within a reformed EU.
Cameron may have secured what are, in his eyes, significant changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU, but only time will tell if he’s done enough to convince voters.
With the polls currently indicating that the “stay” and “leave” camps are enjoying similar support, and with both of the main political parties split over what is best for Britain’s future, a fierce battle is set to rage over the next four months.
Featured image by Arron Hoare via Flickr CC.