British Prime Minister David Cameron was given less than ten minutes to present his proposals for EU reform at the European summit on Thursday (25 June), as the Greek debt consumed most of the attention of EU heads of state.
Cameron was expected to brief the EU’s 28 national leaders over dinner Thursday (25 June) about the reforms he expects from Europe in return for a “yes” campaign in Britain’s upcoming referendum on EU membership. His reform proposals include an opt-out from the EU’s commitment to “ever closer union” and limiting access to benefits for EU migrants.
But with a deadlock in the negotiations between Greece and its creditors, and a failed Eurogroup meeting earlier in the day, the first half of the summit ended up being dedicated to the Greek crisis.
Cameron’s compressed speech ended up being a welcome reprieve from a very heated debate on migration, which gave offcials time to update their documents on migration. Afterwards, none of the 27 other EU leaders said a word apart from Tusk apparently, who thanked Cameron for the talk.
Still, Cameron hailed the summit as a significant milestone in Britain’s renegotiation process.
“Today marks a significant milestone in the process of saying that it’s right for Britain to have this renegotiation and this referendum, to address the concerns that the British people have about Europe and to make sure that the British people have the final say; whether we stay in a reformed European Union or leave,” Cameron said when he arrived at the Council’s doorstep in the afternoon.
“People always say to me: ‘These things aren’t possible. You will never get them done.’ Well, once again we have proved we will get them done: We have started that process,” he added as he walked out of the summit after a long night of negotiation.
Tusk: ‘Fundamental EU values are not for sale’
At the summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk made it clear that British demands would be given due consideration, “but only in a way which is safe for Europe”.
“Fundamental EU values are not for sale and so are non-negotiable,” Tusk warned, adding with a smile that he still had not seen Cameron’s reform proposals in detail.
An EU official said other European leaders would tell Cameron that a change to the EU Treaty before the British referendum was not on the cards.
“You can’t expect us to change the Treaty and then you leave anyway,” said the official, explaining that EU leaders were worried of a domino effect that will inspire similar votes in other EU countries.
Cameron drops call for immediate Treaty change
This was understood by Cameron, who accepted there may be no change to the EU’s treaties to accommodate Britain’s demands ahead of the in/out EU referendum.
He has instead argued for “irreversible” and “legally binding” guarantees that EU law will be changed at some point in the future, according to the BBC. Cameron remains committed to “proper, full-on treaty change” in the long run, however, according to sources at the Prime Minister’s office.
“Let us not deceive ourselves, this process won’t be easy. Negotiations on a treaty reform are complicated and usually take a long time,” Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth said at an event in London on Thursday, citing the 10 years needed for the last new treaty.
Instead, Roth told an audience at the London School of Economics that Britain could consider a quicker approach.
“Substantial changes doesn’t mean a treaty change … There is room for manoeuvring but it is up to the British friends to put concrete ideas on the table.”
One country which could imitate Britain is Denmark. Last week, Danish right-wing opposition parties won the general election. The parties have vowed to support Cameron in his reform negotiating, specifically backing his view on limiting benefits to EU migrants.
At the Council doorstep, ex-Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who represented her country as the new right-wing government has still not been formed, said she would not put forward the new government’s policies, but would follow the summit from a laid-back position.
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, crashed into the summit press room to vent his frustration with Cameron’s reform proposals, which he called “weak”.
He also criticised the appointment of a British Commission official, Jonathan Faull, as the head of a new taskforce on the ‘Brexit’ referendum, saying he is “not British”.
Faull was appointed yesterday (24 June), as part of a shake-up of the executive’s top staff. He is currently the director general of the Commission’s financial services department and will take up his new post in September.
Business for New Europe, a pro-European business group, responded to reports that David Cameron has dropped his previous demand for "proper, full-on treaty change".
Lucy Thomas, Campaign Director at BNE, said: “David Cameron is right, he doesn’t need to change the treaties to get what he wants. There is no doubt that Europe needs to change, but substance is more important than what piece of paper it’s written on. Whether it is on competitiveness, migrant benefits, or protecting countries that do not use the euro, these can all be achieved without a time-consuming changes to the treaties.”
Britain’s governing Conservative party won an absolute majority in the UK general election on 7 May 2015. With 12 more MPs than the other parties combined, the Conservatives no longer have to rely on a coalition partner.
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.
>> Read our LinksDossier: The UK's EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?
- 25-26 June: Cameron to brief EU leaders about Britain's reform proposals at European Council summit
- June-Dec. 2015: "Exploratory phase" to define the scope of Britain's renegotiation with the EU
- 17-18 Dec. 2015: EU summit to agree scope and timetable for renegotiation