1. The Prime Minister is right: most people in Britain want controlled immigration. Some, it’s true, want zero immigration; but a larger number simply want to feel that we are in charge of whom we admit, and in what numbers. At the moment, thanks to Brussels rules, they have no such sense.
2. While the only definitive way to restore control would be through an Australia-style points system, such a system would be against the European treaties. This doesn’t bother me, obviously: I support withdrawal. But it does bother David Cameron, who has never pretended to want any significant disengagement from the EU.
3. The PM has therefore gone for the best possible option consistent with EU membership, one which allows free movement of labour but not free access to benefits.
4. Removing tax credits and other in-work benefits from foreign workers makes sense. Almost no other country makes equivalent grants available. You can’t have 60 million people filling a welfare pot but 600 million able to draw from it.
5. Such a disqualification will also substantially cut numbers. As things stand, British taxpayers are subsidising low-paid EU workers who would not otherwise come. The pro-EU think-tank Open Europe has run the numbers. Under the existing rules, a worker on Poland’s minimum wage with two dependent children who took a job on Britain’s minimum wage would nearly double his income. Factor out the benefits, and his net income would instead fall by 27 per cent.
6. Various Ukippers responded immediately to the speech by saying that the EU would never accept it. They’re wrong. The key governments have plainly been squared in advance and, more to the point, the benefits changes won’t require a treaty change. The treaties enshrine the principle of free movement of people; but it was only through a series of power-grabs by the European Commission and Court that this came mean free access to welfare. Of all David Cameron’s proposals, only one would require an Intergovernmental Conference: the suspension of free movement rights from future EU member states. Since no further expansion of the EU is planned for at least five years, he has plenty of time to work on that.
7. A better line of criticism, if you’re determined to find fault, is precisely the opposite one. Since these proposals won’t require treaty change, why wait? Why not enact them now?
8. There are two answers. First, it suits David Cameron to leave the issue as a differentiator among the parties at the next general election. Second, if there won’t be a new treaty, immigration allows him to bring something back from the renegotiation that precedes our referendum.
9. As important as what was said is what wasn’t said. It’s now clear that the government isn’t pursuing substantive treaty change, and is content to stay in the EU on present terms. EU law will continue to have primacy over British law. We’ll still be citizens of the European Union, with passports and driving licences and all the other paraphernalia of common nationhood. We’ll remain in the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the Common Commercial Policy. Any idea of replacing political union with free trade has been dropped. Likewise the talk of repatriating the bulk of social and employment policy and criminal justice. And, for that matter, the promise made in 2009 that we would opt out of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
10. All of which will make it a cleaner and clearer referendum. We’ll be voting for or against the EU as it stands, not on any new deal. As for sorting out Tony Blair’s immigration mess and Gordon Brown’s tax credits racket, that’s well worth doing. But the changes are essentially domestic. They don’t involve any renegotiation of our EU membership terms. Please don’t confuse the two things.
Opprinnelig i The Telegraph den 28. november 2014.