When David Cameron formally began his EU renegotiation he avoided making demands that he knew would be unacceptable. He did not, for instance, call for a cap on the number of migrants (which would breach the principle of free movement) or the right to veto European laws. He instead limited himself to more modest demands: a four year-ban on in-work benefits for newcomers, an opt-out for the UK from “ever closer union”, greater protection for non-euro member states and a commitment to increased “competitiveness”.
But a month after he outlined his proposals to EU president Donald Tusk, Cameron is struggling. Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo confirmed during the PM’s trip today that her country was opposed to curbs on migrant benefits, a position reportedly shared by all other member states. If Cameron is to secure a deal by February, the deadline for a summer referendum, most believe he will have to concede on this point (while reaching agreement on other fronts).
Yet while limited success would make it harder for Cameron to persuade Conservative MPs to oppose withdrawal it may have little effect on the outcome of the referendum. Few voters will scrutinise the detail of the deal, rather, they will focus on the macro question of whether the UK is better off in the EU or not. Like Cameron, Harold Wilson was criticised in 1975 for the modesty of his renegotiation (which achieved concessions such as increased quotas for New Zealand butter and lamb) but Britain still voted by 67-33 to stay in. Those who want a cap or a ban on EU migrants will not be appeased by anything the PM brings back, while others will be convinced by the argument that membership is fundamental to the UK’s national and economic security (the territory on which the general election and the Scottish referendum were won).
Far more important to the outcome than the government’s renegotiation will be the performance of the economy, the level of migration and the respective leaders and messages of the In and Out campaigns (which side will Boris Johnson and Theresa May break for?) Compared to these, Cameron’s current odyssey is a side show.