Cameron Hasn't Secured Real Reform - But This Doesn't Matter

03/02/2016 12:21 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 10:12 GMT

"Muchm, much more" needs to be done to get an acceptable deal for the UK - Boris Johnson's response to the unveiling of Tusk's EU reform proposals yesterday. Reform or no reform, Britain stands to be stronger as a member of the EU but the root sentiment of Boris' words are true - Cameron's hard fought package cannot be presented as real reform, and certainly not of the scale that has dominated his rhetoric to date. Thankfully, this shouldn't matter too much to Cameron, nor to voters in appraising the attractiveness of the EU.

In the opening lines of the deal letter, Tusk suggests that his offer goes "really far in addressing all the concerns raised" by Cameron, whilst also staying true to principles of the European project - the perfect panacea! And at face value Tusk's words don't stray far from the truth.

The letter sets out four "baskets" of proposals, structured to mirror the groups of objectives set out in Cameron's wish list letter to Tusk. In it he commits to safeguard the rights of non-Eurozone countries; promises to harness greater competitiveness; proposes a new mechanism to empower national parliaments to block EU laws; and finally, puts forward an "emergency break" on EU migrant access to in-work benefits. The reality is that the depth of these proposals varies, and taken as a whole does little to substantially reengineer our relationship: promises to boost competitiveness are sensible but hardly revolutionary, and whilst explicit recognition of the interests of non-Eurozone members is important, the devil will be in the detail - which is yet to be worked out. Of Tusk's more significant offerings, fault can also be found: the new 'red card' mechanism (or 'pink card' as critics have disparagingly dubbed it) will empower members to bloc legislation if it is opposed by 55% of national parliaments. Overlooking the existence of the little used 'yellow cards', which can force the Commission to reconsider laws, legislation that lacks the support of 55% is unlikely to get much traction anyway - with or without the mechanism.

The topic Cameron has pushed the hardest on - migrant access to welfare benefits - is the area in which he has made the most concrete progress. EU migrant access to out-of-work benefits has already been tightened and this deal offers the prospect of an "emergency break" to in-work benefits in "exceptional situations." This is close to what Cameron had in mind but talk of in-work benefits is peripheral noise to Cameron's real issue with EU migration - namely how difficult it makes it to meet his net migration pledge. Given there is a little evidence of in-work benefits acting as a significant pull factor though, this change is unlikely to help him get any close to meeting this.

Despite all of this Cameron says he has achieved what he set out to do, and in many ways this isn't just political posturing. Since announcing his intention to secure key reforms, Cameron has played his cards close to his chest on the specifics of what an acceptable reform package is - speeches have been heavy on the rhetoric but light on the specifics. This has made it easier to sell the outcome as a win, which is important given Cameron's heart seems to be for the UK to remain in the EU. He needed to be able to move on from this renegotiation unhampered and able to campaign to stay in.

Now that the renegotiation phase is (almost) complete we can turn our attention to the real question at the heart of the referendum's vote - is the UK better in the EU or not? The answer is a definitive yes and now we can focus on proving it, instead of just what needs improving.