Cameron’s EU Deal Not Much to Brag About

EU President Donald Tusk has written up a 16-page letter detailing the agreement Prime Minister David Cameron can take to the British people in the upcoming referendum. In the words of Aesop, the mountain has labored and brought forth a mouse. The Tory PM promised a major reform of the EU, its institutions and Britain’s place in the EU. By any measure, the contents of Mr. Tusk’s letter come up short. Those who want to leave the EU have a strong argument that the UK got nothing much out of the recent negotiations. However, the debate ought not to be whether the small changes in the Tusk letter are worthwhile but rather whether Britain in the EU is better off than Britain outside it.

The PM got his desired “emergency brake” on benefits to migrants. In work benefits of migrants will be curbed for four years if other countries agree; child support payments drawn from welfare funds can be sent outside the UK; but Mr. Cameron wanted to block all of it. The phrase “ever closer union” will not be used to force the UK into more and more integration, but the point is largely moot as the UK is already in Europe’s slow lane. The promises on cutting red tape to encourage entrepreneurs is a decades old principle that has yet to be honored to any great degree. It will be easier to stop terror suspects from crossing borders and to halt sham marriages for residency permits.

Mr. Cameron claimed this was “something worth fighting for” giving Britain “the best of both worlds” where it would remain a big voice in Europe while continuing as a “proud independent country not part of a superstate.” He even said on the BBC, “I can say, hand on heart, I have delivered the commitments made in my manifesto.”

One wonders if he read the same letter from Donald Tusk that the rest of the world did. In the letter everyone else saw, as President Bush the Elder might have put it, there isn’t much of a vision thing there. The changes made will not have much effect on the day-to-day operations of the EU. The “red card” that will allow national parliaments to block EU laws is an interesting development, but the theshold for using these powers is awfully high. In theory, it is a useful reform, but hardly revolutionary.

Those who want to leave the EU have received a huge gift. Richard Tice, co-founder of Leave.Eu, accused Mr Cameron 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 is entirely correct. If the referendum were to be about the changes themselves, the rejectionists would carry the day in a cakewalk.

Yet that is not what the referendum is about, nor what it should be about. The question on the referendum asks if Britain should remain in the EU. Changes to the relationship or not, one must ask whether the UK is better off as part of the European Union or as a nation outside it. What exactly is Britain’s role in the world? That is a much more intricate argument than whether child support can be sent to Belgium.

The debate needs to be much grander. It needs to ask Britons what the point is in being British. Who are these people, what is their relationship to the EU and to the entire world?

Those who want to leave the EU need to explain how the four nations that make up the UK will find a future of prosperity, peace and progress more easily if Brussels is not involved. Those who want to stay must explain how membership in the EU advances it. This journal believes it is better for Britain to be in the EU than out of it, and the arguments for continued membership are stronger than those for leaving. But by all means, let Britain have that debate.