Pro-Europeans shouldn’t big up David Cameron’s provisional deal with the European Union. The case for Britain staying in the EU doesn’t rest on the concessions the prime minister has provisionally secured. These are important, but do not change the big picture.
EU membership is good for our prosperity and our security, while quitting would increase the risk of Scotland breaking away from the UK. None of these points is materially changed by the package of proposals Cameron has negotiated with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and which will be put to a summit of the leaders of all 28 nations on 18 and 19 Feb.
This is not to claim, as many eurosceptics do, that the prime minister has achieved nothing in his renegotiations. The draft deal provides some protection for the integrity of the EU’s single market (which we are part of) in the event that members of the euro (which we are not part of) try to discriminate against us. This is an important issue of substance.
With one further exception (see below), the other goodies in Tusk’s grab bag are useful rather than revolutionary. Britain probably had nothing to worry about from the phrase in the EU treaties calling for “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, but it is helpful that this has now been clarified. It is also good that national parliaments will have more say over EU legislation.
Meanwhile, the issue that Cameron himself has made such a song and dance about – denying EU migrants in-work benefits for four years – is largely a red herring. The convoluted scheme now on the table probably won’t stop many people crossing the Channel. But we shouldn’t be so concerned to stop them in the first place. After all, the vast majority work hard and contribute to the public purse.
The one pledge that could make a big difference is the EU’s commitment to boost its competitiveness. Strengthening the single market, cutting red tape and negotiating ambitious trade deals with America, Japan and other countries will all be hugely beneficial to Britain.
The problem is none of this is bankable today. True, targets will be set for reducing the burden of regulations on business. But the only way that Britain will be able to secure all these benefits is by getting stuck into the detail and fighting year after year to make the EU better.
Although the pledge sets a good direction of travel, we will only reach the desired destination if we keep at it.
There’s nothing wrong with that. If Britain does vote to stay in the EU, it is well placed to push the competitiveness agenda. We are already the bloc’s second largest economy and, in a generation, could be the largest. The rest of the EU knows it needs to boost its productivity. So we will be pushing at an open door.
But neither Cameron nor the Remain campaign should exaggerate what this draft deal offers. They don’t need to do this given that their case is strong anyway, and doing so would risk losing credibility with the electorate, which could harm their chances when referendum day comes.
What’s more, even if anti-Brexiteers kept up the pretence that Cameron had secured earth-shattering changes until the vote, there would be a risk of resentment setting in afterwards if voters thought they had been sold a pup. Quite apart from that being bad for democracy, it would make it harder for Britain to engage positively with the EU after the plebiscite and, hence, get the most from its membership.
Edited by Jack Schickler
This column is being simultaneously published on The Telegraph website
Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)