THE BLOG
11/02/2016 04:24 GMT | Updated 10/02/2017 05:12 GMT

David Cameron's EU Deal Isn't Great - But It's Enough to Secure a Referendum Victory

David Cameron will soon preside over a referendum he never wanted.

In 2013, against a tide of Eurosceptic clamour from Tory backbenchers, Cameron offered an In/Out referendum on EU membership were the Conservatives to triumph in the 2015 general election.

To the surprise of many - not least Cameron - they won the election. And just last week, the prime minister secured a draft deal on Britian's EU membership with the European Council.

The draft deal has four main features. The most widely touted is an 'emergency break' that would allow Britain to restrict migrants' in-work benefits for their first four years in the country. According to Cameron, this measure will help stem the flow of migration. Another is a 'red card' mechanism that allows national governments to block EU legislation if 15 or more countries join forces.

But on closer inspection, these policies are riddled with caveats. Take the 'emergency break'. It turns out that the European Commission, not the House of Commons, has the power to decide when Britain can impose four-year restrictions on benefits (and it's actually a graduated restriction on newcomers' benefits). To add fuel to the fire, the European Parliament will even be able to strike down Cameron's 'emergency break', if they so wish.

The 'red card' mechanism, meanwhile, is an ostensible change at best. Given that any EU legislation needs the backing of a majority of EU governments, this requires mass rebellion on an implausible scale. It's difficult to foresee 15 governments colluding in a bid to strike down EU law. It will have very little effect, because the threshold is just so high.

This should, in theory, boost the Eurosceptic cause. But Cameron's lackluster EU deal is offset by the Out campaign's lack of strategic nous. In its present state, the Eurosceptic bandwagon is just too divided to capitalize on Cameron's underwhelming deal.

The two Leave campaigns - Leave.EU and Vote Leave - are attacking each other more forcefully than they are the In camp. And the issue is that neither can quite agree on what life outside the EU looks like.

Vote Leave, fronted by the likes of Douglas Carswell and Danniel Hannan, is firmly internationalist in its outlook. It is broadly supportive of free markets and free trade, and champions a more optimistic, upbeat campaign message.

Leave.EU, Nigel Farge's port of call, on the other hand, is hostile to increased globalization and trumps a more isolationist message.

These are irreconcilable ideological differences between the two camps, and bridging such a fundamental divide will be no easy feat.

What the Out camp has been crying out for is a Big Beast, a well-known figurehead capable of bringing together a broad coalition of people to marshal a concerted fight against Europhiles.

Theresa May, the obvious and most well equipped candidate, to the chagrin of the anti-Brussels brigade, has publicly backed Cameron's deal.

Boris Johnson is another one. But this is highly unlikely. At a meeting with Tory Eurosceptics just before Christmas, the London mayor told them that he's just 'not an 'outer''. His - admittedly somewhat shaky - public approval of Cameron's negotiation also casts this in serious doubt.

In the end, bad deal or not, by opting to stay in the EU, voters actually know what they're getting. They will make a calculated decision on the basis of risk aversion. And voting to leave the EU, despite the wide reaches of its emotional pull, is just too far a journey into the unknown.

Cameron is well aware of this. This week, he was accused of deploying "Project Fear" - a tactic utilized by playing on voters' security concerns - by saying that a vote to leave the EU would result in the migrant camp in Calais moving to Dover.

These may be baseless claims from the prime minister, but the bloodcurdling warnings about the dangers of leaving the EU, coupled with a weak oppositional campaign, will be enough to scare voters into staying.