A government minister just revealed how badly David Cameron's EU renegotiation is going

Foreign secretary philip hammond WPA Pool/Getty ImagesBritish Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has hinted that David Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU might be in real trouble. Hammond has briefed The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour that the Prime Minister is happy to consider alternatives to the four-year ban on migrants arriving in Britain claiming in-work benefits.

Very soon the UK will be holding a referendum to decide whether or not to stay in the European Union. Cameron is trying to secure a new deal with the EU by convincing other EU leaders to agree to four demands; the four-year ban is the headline demand and it’s proving very difficult for Cameron to get the EU to agree to it.

Cameron’s renegotiation is massively important — if the British public think he has managed to secure a “major” deal with the EU, they will be much more likely to vote to remain.

That’s why Hammond’s comments to The Guardian are so important. Just take a look at what he said:

There is no magic about four years. It is just a figure that we calculated would provide a sufficient deterrent. We are looking to deter people.

There are two things going on here. The first thing that most people will notice is that the government wants to “deter” people because is sounds quite harsh. It’s supposed to sound that way. After all, the whole point of the four-year in-work benefit ban is to satisfy Eurosceptic voters who think the government can’t being tough enough on immigration because of EU rules.

Hammond says “deterrent” and “deter,” to take away attention him saying that there is nothing magic about the four-year ban. He’s trying to convince people that the four-year ban isn’t actually that big a deal, even though Cameron made it a central part of his renegotiation.

The reason that Hammond is briefing this out is quite clear: Cameron is having a really, really hard time convincing other EU leaders to sign up to the four-year rule. Time is running out for the Prime Minister, so he is preparing to accept an alternative proposal that he can present to the British public as being something that basically achieves the same thing the four-year ban would have — deterring immigrants from coming to the UK.

And sure enough that’s pretty much what Hammond told The Guardian, stating to Wintour that all the public really wants is assurance the EU will interfere less with British life — i.e. the actual terms of the renegotiation don’t mater as long as they reduce the EU’s power over the UK a little.

For me the test is ‘have we passed the high-water mark of EU intervention in our national life’, and the answer for that has to be ‘yes’ for that package to work. For most people in this country, the EU has too much power; they probably would like to see a bit of power coming back to the nation state.

Cameron will try and reach a deal with the EU during the European Council meeting of EU leaders in February. He pretty much needs to do that in order to both call the referendum this year and have time to satisfy the rules set out by the electoral commission for holding a national election.

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