My father, living in a more robust, less politically correct age than ours, was fond of repeating this adage from his youth: ‘If ifs and ands made pots and pans there’d be no need for tinkers’ hands’. That’s the deal David Cameron has made with the EU at the end of the summit in Brussels on Friday 19th February.
He has decided that ifs and ands can indeed manufacture metallic kitchen utensils and he is now trying to convince the country that we can be assured of our supply of cookware if we trust him and follow his lead. His deal is nothing more than a range of unqualified and ill-defined pseudo-conditions from an embarrassingly modest wish list. He has returned from Brussels preciously cradling a bucket of steam but telling us that it contains the golden egg wrestled valiantly from the hissing European goose.
As I and others have argued, the ‘showdown’ summit in Brussels was little more than a devised piece of theatre, designed to give the impression that real issues were at stake and to allow Cameron to return home wearing the laurels of victory. The concessions he demanded amount to no more than a shoal of red herrings presented as a formidable shiver of sharks. Cameron now parades his success, such as it is, as a Herculean achievement that will reform the EU, but in reality the Augean stables are not due for a makeover anytime soon.
Cameron vaunts his emergency brake on benefits to immigrants. But it is the EU and not the House of Commons that is determining its conditions; these include tax credits being phased in over a period of four years (Cameron wanted immigrants to have first contributed for a full four years) with the brake being applied for only seven years. Despite Cameron’s reassurances, this will have next to no effect on the impact of immigration, especially after the minimum wage is raised to £9 an hour. Child benefit will still be paid to the offspring of EU immigrants working here; Cameron promised to end it. That this is at a reduced rate – indexed to the home country’s pay-outs – does not alter the bizarre principle of this payment. Much of the miniscule savings won by this (about £25 million) will be squandered on reconfiguring computers in the Department for Work and Pensions to accommodate the necessary changes to the system.
More nebulous again is the concession that EU immigrants will have six months to find work or face being made to leave. As it stands in the EU, only some 40% of failed asylum seekers are ever ejected. Are we really to believe that Britain will be more rigorous? Quite the opposite: once media campaigns and lawyers get involved, especially in cases where pregnant girlfriends and hastily acquired wives become part of the issue, can we really envisage the government employing strong-arm tactics to frogmarch unemployed immigrants onto planes in full glare of the cameras? Challenges from the European Court of Human Rights and the EU’s European Court of Justice, applying the extensive legal intrusions of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, will in any case make this prohibitively expensive and ensure the numbers involved would be absolutely minimal. No wonder Cameron deliberately ducked the question on benefits at his Friday night press conference in Brussels.
His most hyped concessions are yet more nebulous again. Cameron is crowing that he has won a guarantee that ‘permanently protects the pound and our right to keep it’. Who could force Britain to abandon the pound anyway? The EU’s hierarchy comprises a shifty bunch of politicians permanently on the make, but they are not Napoleons, Kaisers or Hitlers poised with their armies to invade us (though an EU army will be mustered at some point). This Aunt Sally has long been dead and buried, lying six-foot deep in a stone coffin. Leave her be, Dave. This is as if I won an assurance from Mrs Monkton that she will never compel me to carry out a contract killing and for me to hail this as a great victory. Cameron is so fraudulent he is simply making up fantasy threats and then pretending he has triumphed over them. I suspect he is a dungeons and dragons gamer.
That is not to say that the EU would not like Britain to join the euro and be liable for even greater financial contributions to the basket-case economy of this currency. Thus, in typically underhand fashion, in 2011 the European Central Bank applied pressure by demanding that clearing houses handling euro-denominated securities should be located inside the Eurozone, a move that would intentionally undermine the City (the plan was finally dropped a year ago). Paris and Frankfurt remain keen to challenge London’s dominance at every opportunity.
Then there is his cast-iron assurance that Britain will ‘never be made to bail out countries in the Eurozone’. Again, this is pure eyewash. We can be certain that the EU, true to fixed form, would simply ‘persuade’ Britain to contribute in some other form, or through forced higher contributions. Remember the wheeze in 2014 when the EU demanded an extra £1.7 billion pounds because the UK economy was doing well? Cameron and Osborne puffed up their chests in indignant horror – and then handed over nearly a billion of it. (Even Mrs Thatcher’s famed rebate came at the cost of higher VAT contributions to the then EC.)
Cameron’s deceitfulness continues unabated with his claim that he has saved Britain from being drawn into ‘ever-closer union’. This is disingenuous for two opposing reasons. On the one hand, this principle is enshrined in the founding Treaty of Rome from 1957, which calls for ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’; in theory only another treaty can alter this requirement, and Cameron has pinned his ‘guarantee’ on little more than an accommodating promise for any future one. Recently, however, the House of Commons Library found ‘ever closer union’ cited in 53 judgments of the European Court of Justice. On the other hand, in June 2014 the European Council officially declared that different paths towards integration were open to individual 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’. So it’s yet another of Cameron’s Aunt Sallies. (Cameron has more aunts called Sally in his family than Bertie Wooster has fearsome ones in his.) The Tories have extremely poor form in this area. It was none other than our previous Conservative PM John Major who was to the fore in keeping the phrase ‘ever closer union’ in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty: it sounded better than a proposed reference to federal union. Since then we have been pulled ever further into the EU.
Then, after all this, Lord Jonathan Hill, the EU’s Commissioner for Financial Stability (er, how’s that going, milord?) let the cat out of the bag. On 1st March, appearing before the Treasury Committee’s session on the UK’s membership of the EU, he declared that Cameron’s aggressively asserted, done-and-dusted, soi-disant ‘renegotiation’ deal to protect the City was actually nothing of the sort, with Dodgy Dave’s promises deemed a very long time away from being anything like legally binding, with implications this could take the best part of a decade. (And perhaps not even then.)
Cameron is not stupid. He knows he is deliberately misleading the British public. This opportunistic chancer excels as the supreme snake oil salesman with a cure for our European ills. He wants us to believe that he has heroically summited Brussel’s Everest and conquered all before him. He is the Englishman who went up a mountain but came down a molehill.
James Monkton is the pseudonym of a university lecturer.