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      Europe and the UK Are Edging Closer to Make or Break

      Europe and the UK Are Edging Closer to Make or Break Europe and the UK Are Edging Closer to Make or Break Europe and the UK Are Edging Closer to Make or Break
      Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/EPA

      Europe

      Europe and the UK Are Edging Closer to Make or Break

      By Charles Parkinson

      Should they stay or should they go? It's getting closer and closer to crunch time for Britain and its place in the world, as proposals were unveiled on Tuesday aimed at keeping it a part of the European Union (EU).

      Following months of intense negotiations between the European Commission and UK Prime Minister David Cameron — who wants Britain to be freed from a raft of EU policies and regulations if it is going to remain part of the bloc — European Council President Donald Tusk revealed a draft deal on reform.

      The proposal, which Cameron will now have to persuade other EU nations to sign up to, is the first stage in a process that will end in a referendum of British voters on whether they want to remain part of the union, possibly as soon as June

      The referendum was a key manifesto pledge for Cameron's Conservative Party during 2015's general election and the prime minister has since embarked on a campaign to renegotiate the UK's place in Europe.

      There is strong feeling on both sides of the debate in Britain, with those who favor leaving the EU claiming Britain is losing its sovereignty to meddling bureaucrats and those who want to stay claiming the UK would be mad to sacrifice the huge economic benefits and increased political influence it gets from being part of the bloc.

      It is also a very high stakes issue for the rest of EU, which would be changed forever if its second biggest economy and one of its two main military powers was taken away.

      Cameron laid out four main demands in a letter to Tusk last November: that EU citizens coming to work in Britain should be barred from claiming in-work benefits and social housing for four years; that national parliaments should have more power to reject unpopular EU laws; that countries that are not part of the euro currency zone be better protected financially; and that administrative red tape be cut in order to aid competition and trade.

      "To my mind [the proposal] goes really far in addressing all the concerns raised by Prime Minister Cameron. The line I did not cross, however, were the principles on which the European project is founded," wrote Tusk in a letter published alongside the draft deal.

      For many EU members, a key principle is freedom of movement, which Cameron's attempt to cut in-work benefits was seen to discriminate against.

      Under Tusk's proposal, Britain would be able to initially withhold in-work benefits to migrant workers if "an exceptional situation exists on a scale that affects essential aspects of its social security system," before gradually introducing those benefits over a period of four years.

      According to Don Flynn, a spokesman for migrant advocacy group Migrants' Rights Network, despite Cameron drawing an acceptance from Tusk that the UK is witnessing an inflow of workers of "exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time," tying that to hard evidence of social services coming under threat would be extremely difficult.

      "The government has been trying for years to come up with a narrative about a negative impact of migration on public services and the labor market and it's failed to do it," Flynn told VICE News. "At the moment there is no sense of a major crisis that is triggered by the arrival of migrants as far as the social security system is concerned."

      Meanwhile, where Cameron had previously pledged to end child welfare benefits being sent by migrant workers to children living overseas, the new proposal pegs the size of those payments to comparable benefits in the EU countries where the children reside.

      Other agreements include a "red card" system that provide Britain with the opportunity to block EU legislation, as well as broad agreements to cut red tape and guarantees that the UK would not bear any financial burden for protecting the euro currency.

      Cameron did not appear in parliament to answer questions on the deal, with reports suggesting he was biding his time to build support for it within his own party — which includes a large faction of lawmakers opposed to EU membership.

      His failure to show up drew rebuke from Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, who criticized Cameron's "lack of respect for the democratic process."

      However, Cameron did face questions from the media at a public appearance outside London, during which he insisted the draft represented a good deal for Britain and lived up to promises made by his party before last year's election.

      "I can say, hand on heart, I have delivered the commitments made in my manifesto," he said.

      Meanwhile, pressure groups on either side of the EU membership debate each claimed that the draft proposal bolstered their campaigns.

      Pro-EU group Stronger In said the deal represented a "best of both worlds" for Britain, allowing it to reap the economic rewards of being part of the union while retaining greater ability to protect the country's interests.

      "Our EU membership brings many benefits including jobs, low prices, workers' rights, investment from EU funds, and enhanced security," said the campaign's Executive Director Will Straw, in a statement. "The Leave campaigns have repeatedly called for what is now on the table. Their opposition now is nothing less than a disingenuous act of hypocrisy."

      But Leave EU spokesman Jack Montgomery dismissed the entire process as "pure theater."

      "It's important that the prime minister is seen to fight it out with the EU in some way, so that it looks like he has stood up to Brussels and won a better deal for Britain. However, he isn't asking for anything of substance," he told VICE News.

      According to Rob Comley, a research executive at Get Britain Out, beyond not going far enough, the proposal is likely to be watered down further by other EU heads.

      "It doesn't stop the unlimited mass migration of people from the EU. What Cameron has offered is a deal that many will believe doesn't help Britain at the moment and hopefully that will edge people towards voting for Britain to leave in the referendum," he told VICE News.

      How much the draft deal will be revised remains to be seen, with Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmusson ambiguously calling it a "good basis for negotiations" in a tweet released after Tusk published the details.

      But Cameron will visit Rasmusson and a number of EU heads in the coming weeks in the hope of securing agreement for the proposal ahead of the EU leaders summit scheduled for February 18 and 19 — which would allow the referendum to go ahead in June. Failure to do so could push the poll back to September.

      Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn

      Topics: europe, eu, britain, politics, uk

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