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09/12/2016

Who could block an EU ‘Brexit’ deal?

UK & Europe

Who could block an EU ‘Brexit’ deal?

Donald Tusk and David Cameron at the London donor's conference.

[European Council]

The push for a deal to keep Britain in the European Union at a summit this week faces obstacles thrown up by a number of countries sceptical or hostile to the proposals.

Here is a guide to the countries most likely to cause problems for British Prime Minister David Cameron, and for EU President Donald Tusk who will visit some of them ahead of an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday (18-19 February).

France

One half of the EU’s political and economic “power couple” with Germany, France has raised objections about Britain’s call for safeguards for countries that do not use the euro.

France will rule out any step that means the nine “euro-outs” can veto decisions by the 19 “euro-ins” as they seek to increase integration in the eurozone and boost its recovery from its debt crisis.

French President François Hollande earlier this month insisted there “can be no veto by countries outside the eurozone” on eurozone policies.

France will also seek to water down as far as possible a “mechanism” by which Britain and its eight non-eurozone counterparts can raise concerns about decisions by eurozone nations. Tusk is due to meet Hollande in Paris on Monday.

EU warns UK deal ‘fragile’ as Paris, East seek changes

A draft accord to help keep Britain in the European Union is “very fragile”, a top EU official warned yesterday (10 February) as France and eastern states pushed for changes before leaders meet to try and seal the deal next week.

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The ‘Visegrad Four’

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — the central/eastern European states that make up the “Visegrad Four” group — have been the most vocal against plans to allow Britain an “emergency brake” on welfare benefits for EU migrant workers.

Each has hundreds of thousands of citizens working in Britain, many of whom were quick to take advantage of Britain’s failure to make use of temporary controls on migration when the EU opened its doors to the east in the early 2000s.

They have raised concerns that Tusk’s proposal to let Britain curtail welfare for four years for newly-arrived EU workers would be both discriminatory and breach the bloc’s core principle of freedom of movement.

The concession to them has been to change Britain’s call for a complete freeze to a graded limit on benefits. Cameron has also assiduously toured their capitals to drum up support.

Romania is believed to have expressed similar reservations over the issue and Tusk has added the country to his itinerary, with a visit due Monday.

Germany and the North

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been supportive of Cameron’s negotiations, while insisting that the EU’s underlying principles cannot be changed.

But the strain from Europe’s migration crisis is weighing on Germany, which took in more than one million people last year, leading to suspicions that it could be tempted to try to use the “emergency brake” itself.

Any indications at the summit that Germany ― or other rich northern EU states such as Denmark or Sweden ― is considering such a move would almost certainly mean that central and eastern European states would torpedo the deal, EU sources told AFP.

Tusk’s proposals have sought to head this off, limiting the brake to countries that failed to take advantage of the temporary immigration controls after the eastern European opening — effectively, Britain alone. Tusk visits Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday.

Greece

Facing criticism from the rest of the EU for its handling of the migration crisis and still mired in debts, Greece could be tempted to extract concessions for agreeing to a British deal.

The fact that Tusk will visit Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday, along with a select few like Merkel and Hollande, shows that the leftist Greek leader could be a key power broker.

Italy

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has become a vocal thorn in the EU’s side in recent months, likening it to the orchestra that played on the deck of the sinking Titanic.

Behind it lies a clash between Brussels and Berlin over Italy’s demands for leeway on the eurozone’s budgetary rules, plus a desire for a more prominent place at the EU’s top table alongside France and Germany.

Renzi held up an agreement on sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis late last year and could cause trouble again.

Background

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.

Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.

But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.

Timeline

  • 15 February: Visegrad summit.
  • (Possibly) 16 February: Meeting at “Sherpa” level.
  • 18-19 February: EU summit.