Based on the rhetoric of BrExiters (such as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s description of “thin gruel watered down”) Cameron was well and truly shafted by the EU in the renegotiations. They supposedly gave nothing away and “disrespected” Britain. Cameron was portrayed as being a supplicant asking permission and being turned down in a humiliating fashion.
In their narrative, BrExiters view the process of international negotiation as one side placing its demands and the other parties capitulating to these demands. Compromise and horse trading are seen as weaknesses and any demand not met is a humiliating defeat. Consequently nothing will satisfy them as every concession by Cameron is a defeat and every concession by the EU is never seen as a victory (as we shouldn’t need to ask in the first place). The fact the EU itself and the 27 other members had to make concessions that they will have to explain and justify to their own electorates seems to have escaped these people. Maybe they were play acting to make it appear to be playing hard ball!
The EU functions as a voluntary organisation where every member aims to optimise the costs and benefits. If anyone aims to maximise their benefits and minimise their costs, then the whole system would fall apart. There therefore have to be core principles and rules for it to function to everyone’s benefit. The EU aims to ensure the core principles (which, incidentally, the UK signed upto in the 1970s) are held to, whilst ensuring there are compromises on the detail so each member’s special circumstances are, within reason, accommodated. Moreover, the negotiations were not just with the EU: they are with the 27 other members who have very different views and they too must feel they haven’t been “sold out”. Contrary to BrExit propaganda the EU isn’t free to reach its own agreement with the UK and “impose” it on the other 27 members: it has to seek a broad consensus that is acceptable to all.
If one member is always seeking special treatment (such as continual opt-outs) then at some point other members may well seek them too and the system falls apart. In negotiations in order to get the EU to compromise on somethings Britain wants, Britain must compromise in other (possibly quite unrelated) areas. An example would be that in order to get agreement on the EU Single Market back in the 1980s, Thatcher couldn’t insist on abolishing the CAP at one stroke (much as she might have wanted to). Similarly, in the 2000s, to get some CAP reform, Blair had to accept some reduction in the totemic rebate. Threatening to walk out if your demands are not met isn’t normally a great negotiating strategy (try doing it when you next buy a car).
In three areas of the renegotiations, BrExiters view the outcome as unsubstantial. Of course, the EU would agree to becoming more competitive; the “ever closer union” is a journey, not a destination so the opt out can mean what anyone wants it to mean; the “red card” probably can’t be deployed in practice though it would have been good to have had a real example where it could and should have been deployed. On the matter of protections for non-Eurozone countries they’d argue the deal isn’t worth anything.
That left the issue of migrants benefits. This is also a totemic issue: there isn’t much evidence it’s a big issue and is more viewed as something Cameron could claim as being something that would help reduce EU migration to the UK and its costs. Some sort of compromise was bound to happen and, like all compromises, one can call it a glass half full, or nearly empty depending on your point of view.
In the end, confirmed BrExiters were not going to be satisfied with anything and were bound to disparage both the package and the negotiator. Had the EU agreed to move its HQ to London, they’d have complained about the affect on house prices! Similarly, those committed to remaining in the EU would question why we went through all this pain, just to get a few modest concessions. However, neither of these groups were the audience. That was the big group of undecideds or mildly Eurosceptics (those who moan about the EU but broadly accept the good bits of it) who want some assurances that the convoy we are joined with will steer in a direction they’re comfortable with. Some won’t be happy and will join the BrExiters. I would hope and expect the majority will be happy, or at least not unhappy.
Instead, those disparaging Cameron should explain what realistic and achievable demands would they have made, what their negotiating strategy would be, and do they really think they would get them? It sounds like what they wanted was all the alleged benefits of being out (no budget contribution, no freedom of movement (except for Brits going to the EU), and no supremacy of EU law (except over the things we want other countries to accept)) whilst still being in. What on earth makes them think this would be acceptable to anyone in the EU?
Since the agreement was made, BrExiters, especially Michael Gove, have declared that the deal is not enforceable and the ECJ can ignore or over-rule it. Authoritative opinion both here and the EU disagrees with Gove. Nonetheless this argument has been picked up by others in the various Leave groups. But if the agreement is truly “watered down thin gruel”, then why does it matter if the ECJ overrules it? If it matters that the ECJ might overrule it then surely the concessions are more significant than those that disparage it care to claim? Let’s get a bit of reality here shall we? When Ireland and other EU countries rejected treaties in referendums a “deal” was done in much the same way to modify the treaties for the country affected but without requiring a full re-ratification process. Has the ECJ ever challenged any of these special deals? Furthermore, countries like Greece, Italy and others blatantly breached the Eurozone stability pact. Have they ever been fined or sanctioned for this behaviour (as opposed to be required to conform)? Thus it is both unlikely that the ECJ will override the deal and even if they do that the Commission will impose sanctions on an agreement they signed up to. Should that happen, then the UK government at the time has the right to an escalating set of actions from ignoring them, the “empty chair” strategy through to BrExit.
But what happens if we vote to Leave? Some, led by Boris Johnson and now by Michael Howard, appear to think a leave vote would strengthen their hands in a second round of negotiations in which much more significant concessions can be gained, followed by a second vote to stay in. Since the December 2011 EU summit in which Cameron vetoed a new fiscal treaty, the EU has had to endure Britain indulging itself in demanding more special treatment, leading to Cameron’s promise of a referendum in 2013. By June 2016, that’s nearly 5 years of British navel gazing when the EU has had several Eurozone crises to resolve, the reassertion of Russian power by Putin, the fallout of the Arab Spring, containment of Iranian nuclear ambitions, the rise of ISIS, the Paris climate negotiations and, most recently, the migrant crisis. None of these issues have gone away and British renegotiations have distracted the EU (and Britain) at a crucial time. Why on earth would the EU prolong the agony for a couple more years to indulge the spoilt schoolboy Boris had never grown out of?
Moreover, one of the common complaints of BrExiters is that examples of the EU being undemocratic are when voters in one country (examples Ireland, Denmark) reject a Treaty in a referendum it is re-run to get the “right answer”. If we were to do this in the UK, then for decades into the future those determined to leave the EU at all costs will keep making this same complaint.