David Cameron is reportedly closing in on a deal that would secure for the UK an “emergency brake” to restrict EU migrants’ access to benefits if and when their arrival puts excessive pressure on public services and welfare systems.
The agreement would allow any EU member state to request a brake be applied, although the authority to approve the emergency measure would lie with other EU governments at a European council level. There is no indication for how long a brake could remain in place, but there are suggestions that it could last for up to four years once initiated.
And, crucially, it is unclear what defines an emergency. Hopefully, further details will become clearer when Cameron meets Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, on Friday afternoon. However, there is one question that can already be asked: can the very idea of an emergency brake work?
Put aside political and economic considerations – should the UK be aiming to reduce immigration and do in-work benefits act an incentive for migrants? – and ignore any legal concerns and complexities. Give the government the benefit of the doubt and assume Britain is indeed overwhelmed by high migration and it needs to reduce inward flows.
If we assume this, any proposal should be measured by the impact it has on the problem it sets out to solve.
First, the lever should be pulled before the referendum, or at least a timeframe should be agreed before Britons head to the polls. The justification for making restrictions to immigration a central pillar of the negotiations assumes an immediate problem exists. If the brake is not pulled now, then when?
Secondly, the UK’s concerns over immigration are not driven by short-term pressure, such as in Bavaria last summer when tens of thousands entered the German state over one weekend, but by longer-term flows. In this sense, the effectiveness of a temporary one-off measure is nebulous. Even more so if it turns out that the vast majority of people come to Britain to work and not to claim benefits.
The net result is that the emergency brake may end up a toothless deterrent that is never used, no more than a stick to wave during the referendum in the hope that it is enough to assuage voters’ concerns while, ultimately, doing little to dent immigration.
The sensitivity around this measure matters because restricting migrants’ access to in-work benefits for four years is the most precise among the prime minister’s areas of negotiation. It has a specificity that his other demands, such as increasing Europe’s competitiveness or safeguarding non-euro countries from the principle of an “ever closer union”, do not possess. The goal has been so clearly stated that anything less could be perceived as falling short.
Cameron has said he is open to alternative ways to achieve the same goal. However, the clarity of the original demand has forced the prime minister into a position where he must now be seen to have delivered on that pledge.
Numerous compromises have been explored, such as welfare measures applicable to all new claimants, which would hit thousands of young Britons, or a brake on the number of arrivals. Once properly scrutinised, these have proven to be too costly, in breach of EU law, or politically unpalatable at home or abroad.
The latest blueprint for compromise has taken the shape of an emergency brake on benefits. But the feasibility and substance of any measure will be in the details – and the most important of these remain unknown.
Cameron may return to Britain, to borrow an Italian saying, with only fried air to sell to the electorate. Will voters buy it?
This article was written by Alberto Nardelli, for theguardian.com on Friday 29th January 2016 15.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010