A change of status

AFTER 48 hours of hard bargaining and little sleep David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, emerged from a summit

AFTER 48 hours of hard bargaining and little sleep David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, emerged from a summit meeting of European leaders at midnight on February 19th to announce a deal on his four demands for reforms to the European Union. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, declared the creation of a “special status” for Britain. Whether it will count for much in the referendum is much less certain.

Agreement came most easily on competitiveness and the promise of more free-trade deals, to which all EU countries pay lip service, even when obstructing them in practice. Mr Cameron’s demands on sovereignty were harder to settle. All agreed to give the EU’s 28 national parliaments a “red card” whereby support from 55% of them could block EU laws. But several leaders were hostile to Mr Cameron’s insistence on an exemption for Britain from the EU’s goal of “ever closer union”. He won it by what he called a “live and let live” approach: Britain will not impede others’ desire for deeper integration so long as it can opt out.

The most important change Mr Cameron wanted was a guarantee that the bigger euro-zone block could not gang up on non-euro countries. The 19-strong euro area, with votes weighted according to the size of countries, now has the power to legislate for the entire EU. He has secured agreement for enhanced observer status for non-euro countries in euro-zone meetings and an understanding that a non-euro country can appeal to an EU summit if it objects to decisions taken at such meetings.

The most heated argument came over Mr Cameron’s desire to stop new EU migrants to Britain from claiming in-work benefits for four years, and to cut the level of benefits paid for children whom they have left in their home countries. As a compromise, he secured an “emergency brake” that will let Britain delay paying benefits for a seven-year period and cut child benefits for existing migrants after 2020. East Europeans are unhappy with these changes. Yet they seem unlikely to reduce the numbers of EU migrants, since most come to Britain to work, not to claim benefits.

Mr Cameron insists his changes are legally binding and irreversible. But though promises were made to change the treaties in future and the European Parliament said it would help with legislation, some may still be challenged either politically or in the European Court of Justice. One proposal he was, however, happy to accept: that if Britons vote for Brexit, the entire deal will lapse. This is meant to bolster Mr Cameron’s insistence that a vote to leave is just that—and not as Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, suggests, merely a prelude to getting a better deal from Brussels.