We may not like some of David Cameron's EU reform demands which will be voted on by the UK's partners today in Brussels. The welfare/child benefit proposals that have emerged from discussions with European Council President Donald Tusk, whatever he and the UK may say, clearly discriminate against workers who move from one EU country to another and are a breach of the principle of free movement of workers that is a core value of the union.
The Government argues that, if this is the price we must pay to preserve vital British membership of the Union, then we must pay it and vote for the deal. But it is a surrender, however necessary, to ultimatum tactics that we may yet rue. In time the ability of a single state to dictate policy to 27 others in the interests of political expediency will only encourage others to try to do likewise.
Others, notably the four Visegrad countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, are less willing to oblige. They have more to lose. Poland says it has some 100,000 "orphans", children whose parents are abroad working elsewhere in the Union, a fifth of them in the UK and entitled to avail of its child allowances. Twice that number of Poles live and work away from their children in Germany and avail of its allowances.
A compromise under discussion would allow the UK to restrict the child benefit cuts to new arrivals and not allow the Germans to limit the allowances. That may just prove sufficient to pass muster and give Mr Cameron what he needs.
Other parts of the Tusk package, like the commitment to new competitiveness measures and the right to opt out of support for “ever-closer union”, are largely unproblematic. French concerns about a notional UK veto on eurozone decisions were more imaginary than real.
But Mr Cameron is pushing his luck in seeking binding advance commitments that all the elements of the deal will be nodded through by the Union’s various institutions. The Commission has quite improperly indicated, without due examination, that it accepts the dubious UK case that migrant costs are putting an exceptional burden on its budget, and has promised to rubber-stamp its application for special measures. The Parliament’s officers, however, have quite properly cautioned that they cannot guarantee MEPs will do likewise. The irony is that the UK is supposedly trying to enhance the accountability of the “undemocratic” EU.
In truth, however, the concessions sought by the UK are either marginal in substance or essentially smoke and mirrors. They do not, as Mr Cameron will no doubt assert, change the fundamental nature of the EU or its relationship with the UK. Would, however, that EU leaders were prepared to invest such energy in genuinely transforming the Union’s creaky, imperfect democracy, as they are investing in his merry dance.