The summit where everyone lost

European leaders are claiming victory, but nothing has been resolved. And Britain is in the worst of

What a mess. Although leaders sought, with tedious predictability, to portray themselves as victors, last week's summit in Brussels was one where everybody lost. David Cameron used a veto which did not block anything, and instead relegated Britain to semi-detached EU status. Angela Merkel won a treaty that may never be ratified and with terms that most countries will not be able to keep to. And although the European Central Bank has been handed control over the two EU bail-out funds, and the IMF given an extra €200bn, there is still no "big bazooka' to calm the financial markets. The euro crisis has not been resolved.

British eurosceptics took to the airwaves to celebrate David Cameron's surprising move to veto plans for a very modest - and very conservative - treaty revision. The problem is that a veto implies the ability to stop something, whereas treaty change is going to happen anyway.

But what has Cameron won? The safeguards for the City that he talked about? Nope, even though President Van Rompuy had worked on texts with Cameron's officials before the summit started. It was when Cameron demanded that the UK should be exempted from financial regulation that the problems started. This was always going to be an impossible demand, but Cameron and his officials knew this and had prepared protocols and declarations that, without being guarantees, would have been enough to take back to London. Although Sarkozy initially refused this, Cameron should have been able to win out eventually. Unfortunately, Cameron, already regarded as a diplomatic lightweight by most leaders, over-played his hand, threatened a veto and Sarkozy called his bluff.

It is hard to understand why he chose, as Lord Kerr put it, to "pick up the ball and walk off the pitch before the game started". This was, remember, just a summit. A new treaty was not decided here, only the principals. It would have been quite natural for Cameron to take the deal to the House of Commons in order to establish a clear and detailed mandate for further negotiation.

Cameron has actually done his party and the moderate eurosceptics in his party no good. Although dramatically wielding the veto guaranteed 24 hours of positive coverage from eurosceptics, the reality is that Britain has been left with the worst of all worlds. He didn't win any safeguards - in fact, the City will almost certainly pay a large price as the UK was already struggling to find allies on financial regulation in the Council of Ministers and will now find it even harder -and an unnecessary and politically dangerous, treaty will go through anyway with Britain locked out of the room. Only the Conservatives who actually want Britain to leave the EU should be happy.

Indeed, an "in/out" referendum on our EU membership is now almost inevitable. Conservatives will soon grow frustrated at paying higher costs for fewer of the benefits of membership. If Cameron remains committed to EU membership, this will push more Tories into the arms of Ukip and the BNP.

Friday's BBC Newsnight programme, which treated us to Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott and Bernard Jenkin tearing lumps out of each other, highlighted the new tension that will divide the coalition. Yet amidst Oakeshott's anger and Jenkin's gloating came one revealing admission: Jenkin did not, he said, want Britain to leave the EU. Instead, he saw the summit as the first step towards re-negotiating our terms of membership and repatriating some powers. Jenkin's remarks are representative of most Tory MPs. But he is either disingenuous or stunningly naïve. Any goodwill towards the Conservatives has now evaporated - even though right-wing parties are in power in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. There is only one option facing Britain in the future: stay in or sod off.

There is nothing here for Europhiles to rejoice over either. As the only country not to take the summit deal back to their national parliament, the UK has been firmly established as a semi-detached member of the EU. Having worked hard to win allies and influence following the enmity caused by the Iraq war, Labour and Lib Dem MEPs will now have to cope with the suspicion and anger of their European sister-parties. The notion that Britain is intrinsically anti-European, disruptive and a "wrecker" will be hard to shift. They will also have to cope with a national debate on EU policy that will, even more than before, be divided along in/out lines.

The treaty proposals also demonstrated how toothless the European left currently is. Conservatives are now in power in Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain, and the terms of reference have been dictated by Merkel and, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy. The result is, as Owen Jones remarked, a treaty that locks in austerity for the eurozone. In particular, establishing a 0.5 per cent ceiling for structural deficits is a rule that few countries will be able to adhere to and will make it impossible for countries to pursue expansionary policies in the short or medium term. Europe's economies desperately need to achieve better budgetary discipline, but this is more of a strait-jacket than a life-jacket.

However, it is interesting that both François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, and Peer Steinbruck, the leader of the German SPD, have both attacked the proposals. Merkel remains a highly embattled Chancellor while Hollande, twenty points ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, is likely to be President within months. If the Merkozy duopoly stays committed to a full treaty change, then ratification will be very bumpy and uncertain.

But while the euro crisis remains unresolved, a new crisis has been created concerning Britain's status in the EU. Cameron has achieved the unique feat of leading his party inexorably towards another disastrous split over Europe while driving a decisive wedge between him and his Lib Dem coalition partners. More importantly, he has ensured that a summit about the future of the euro will instead be remembered as the time when Britain willingly isolated itself for no reward and moved dangerously close to Europe's exit door.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle