Cameron Claims “Substantial Change” in EU Membership

The British leader gets most of the changes he had asked for, including curbs to in-work benefits.

British prime minister David Cameron speaks at a Siemens factory in Chippenham, England, February 2
British prime minister David Cameron speaks at a Siemens factory in Chippenham, England, February 2 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Georgina Coupe)

British prime minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that a draft agreement to keep his nation in the European Union entails “substantial change.”

But it does not appear to meet one of Cameron’s key demands: a four-year ban on labor migrants from other EU nations claiming benefits in the United Kingdom.

Cameron said there are still “details to be worked on” before he meets other leaders in Brussels later this month to finalize the deal.

He has promised to call a referendum on EU membership by 2017. If an agreement is reached at the European Council in February, though, he might hold the in-out vote as early as this summer.

Benefits

Cameron’s proposal to deny workers from other member states social benefits for up to four years was contentious.

Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, feared it would restrict the free movement of people and labor, one of the EU’s signature accomplishments.

Central European countries, like Hungary and Poland, called Cameron’s original plan discriminatory.

A compromise worked out by European Council president Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, would allow Britain to curb benefits for four years — but only as an “emergency” measure. It would not be permanent.

“Hardly worth the wait”

Euroskeptics were quick to dismiss the proposal.

Richard Tice, a businessman who funds one of the campaigns to leave the EU, accused the prime minister of “trying to deceive the British people by saying that there’s substantial change. There is nothing except a restatement of the existing status quo,” he said.

Liam Fox, Cameron’s former defense secretary, agreed the compromise scheme did not “come close” to the changes voters had been promised.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, said the deal announced on Tuesday was “hardly worth the wait.”

But Open Europe, a Euroskeptic think tank, argued that Tusk’s compromise sets a “significant precedent” as it would allow Britain to treat its own nationals differently from the nationals of other member states, if only for a specified time period.

Other reforms

Cameron did better on his other demands, including giving national parliaments the power to block EU legislation and winning the assurance that Britain is not compelled under current treaties to enter into deeper political integration with the countries in Europe.

A statement from Tusk also calls for increased “efforts to enhance competitiveness” and cut red tape. But it provides no details.

Tusk also recognizes that there is now a two-speed Europe: a core of countries that use the euro and a periphery of non-euro member states like Britain.

In the long term, we have argued, this may turn out to be the most significant of Cameron’s reforms. It puts the brakes on any move toward federalization and instead should see a more flexible union emerge, one in which countries variously opt in and out of integration schemes.

Such an arrangement may prove more durable than the current commitment to “ever-closer union,” which voters across Europe have grown increasingly wary of.