From his speech and question session on today’s draft EU deal, it’s clear that David Cameron plans to spend the next two weeks promoting his negotiation success, rather than focusing on improving it. He naturally needs to persuade voters – and his colleagues – that this is a good deal that will make a big difference to Britain’s relationship with Europe. But as the press questions following the speech showed, this is going to be extremely difficult.
The Prime Minister was insistent that he had secured a good deal on in-work benefits for EU migrants, saying ‘what I’ve got is basically something I’ve asked for’. He was then asked repeatedly about the actual disparity between what he asked for, which was originally a four-year ban on benefits for migrants, and what he has been given, which is a phased introduction of benefits for those migrants over a four year period. This is what he said when asked by the Telegraph’s Christopher Hope when the first payment to to an EU worker would be made:
‘In terms of the four-year scheme, the details aren’t set out, we’re going to be negotiating those details, there are many areas of this document where you can see, right, we’ve got a mechanism to make sure that we can raise issues about the eurozone we’re concerned about, but we need the detail worked out. We’ve got the four year proposal on migrants, we need to make sure we get the detail right on any, er, phasing. We’ve got the outline in many areas, but more detail, more work is needed and that’s what the next couple of weeks are about.’
Here are the details that haven’t yet been set out:
‘On a proposal from the Commission having examined the notification, the Council could, by means of an implementing act, authorise the Member State concerned to restrict access to in-work welfare benefits to the extent necessary. The implementing act would authorise the Member State to limit the access of Union workers newly entering its labour market to in-work benefits for a total period of up to four years from the commencement of employment. The limitation should be graduated, from an initial complete exclusion but gradually increasing access to such benefits to take account of the growing connection of the worker with the labour market of the host Member State. The Council implementing act would have a limited duration and apply to EU workers newly entering its labour market during a period of [X] years, extendable for two successive periods of [Y] years and [Z] years.’
This is a lot more detail than Cameron offered. And he will not be able to claim after the deal is signed off that there isn’t enough detail for him to be able to engage with criticisms of this deal on migrant benefits. He will also look disingenuous if he tries to claim that this is what he has been asking for all along. When he wrote to Donald Tusk in November 2015, the Prime Minister said:
‘So we have proposed that people coming to Britain from the EU must live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing. And that we should end the practice of sending child benefit overseas.’
Qualifying for benefits after four years is very different to being phased into benefit payments over four years. The first benefit payment to an EU migrant working in Britain will take place long before the four year period is over.
It’s not just British voters who Cameron will need to convince on the benefits issue. Yesterday former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said it would be very difficult for his country to accept the ‘emergency brake’.
Perhaps the watered-down proposals that were published today will be much easier for Poland to accept. Or perhaps Cameron needs to spend the next few weeks convincing his Polish counterparts that he will help them out in various ways as recompense for these new rules. This might include more proposals on security, or assurances that he will in some way support the country in its clash with the European Commission over whether its government is undermining the rule of law and press freedom. But what he cannot afford to do is allow his watered-down benefits deal to be diluted in any way at all over the next few weeks. He continues to insist that there is more work to do: politically, this means that Cameron needs to arrive at the European Council summit on 18 and 19 February having secured a few more concessions that he can trumpet as an even better deal than the one he thinks he’s got today.