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So in the end, David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership served to remind us of the case for leaving: the EU is designed in such a way that almost no sensible proposal can be passed. Its negotiations start after dinner, and are designed to drag on until 5am - a formula designed to stifle debate, and to wear people down. The Prime Minister was kept waiting until 10pm to be told that he had agreement on a deal - but one perforated by the bullet holes of other member states. The resulting deal is a woeful substitute for the fundamental reform that he rightly set out to achieve. They called his bluff, which is bad in itself. But worse, he has now been sent back to London to try to call the bluff of his country.
It is typical of the EU that the summit should have been obsessed with finer points of detail without anyone being able to address the bigger picture. We have had hours and hours of debate over how much child benefit should be paid to the family of a Polish parent working in Britain whose children remain back home. And even on this, Cameron was defeated: the final deal only allows him to index such payments living standards in the country where the child resides from 2020. A deadline which remind the British that Brussels controls such issues. Meanwhile, a more fundamental issue has not been addressed: that western Europe’s generous welfare policies are simply never going to be compatible with mass migration, whether from outside or inside the EU.
David Cameron’s original proposal - to ban immigrants from receiving benefits for four years - was reasonable, and would not have been a threat to Britain's many immigrant workers because so few of them claim welfare. It sent an important message: come to Britain to work, and don’t expect to be eligible for full social benefits until you have been contributing to the tax system for several years. It is a template which the EU should be adopting. This is the way to reconcile free movement of people with generous benefits: restrict their availability to newcomers. The EU’s failure to recognise this (and its decision to restrict this to a four-year period where the UK might implement some restrictions) demonstrates that it is structurally unable to respond to such upheavals as the migration crisis, the financial crisis and - now - the welfare crisis.
The UK has been a keen advocate of the ‘four freedoms’ that the EU purports to stand for: free movement of goods, services, workers and capital. The problem is that the EU itself actively opposes free trade, favouring a morally indefensible policy of overt protectionism. Nearly 60 years after it was founded from the European Coal and Steel Community, and more than 20 years after the foundation of the ‘single market’, the EU has made little progress in opening up cross-border trade in services such as banking and insurance. For an economy like Britain’s, which is heavily based on services, this is a serious failing.
Cameron was proposing to rescue Britain's EU membership: the way he has been treated has been nothing short of shameful. He claimed that his deal offered Britain “the best of both worlds”: that was his intention. But it has, alas, not been the outcome.
So yes, the EU has batted away his reform proposals and forced him to accept a humiliating simulacrum of his original demands. But Cameron's reform plans also represented the only way that the EU can survive. Regardless of the outcome of the UK referendum, the EU needs to reform - or perish. Tonight, the latter option has just started to look a lot more likely.
SPECTATOR EVENT: EU REFERENDUM - THE BATTLE AHEAD
Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman will be discussing the forthcoming EU Referendum campaign with pollster Ben Page from Ipsos Mori on 21 March. Tickets, for subscribers only, are on sale now. To subscribe from £1 a week, click here.