British Prime Minister David Cameron’s rhetoric at the EU summit differed from that of other leaders, using the opportunity to reiterate that Britain wants to seek a "fresh settlement" with Europe.
Cameron was one of the last of the 27 EU leaders to arrive at the summit in Brussels on Thursday evening. And as he entered the building, he didn't sound like he was singing from the same hymn sheet as the others. Whilst the talk was of a possible deal on a banking union, Cameron wanted to push the idea of completing the single market.
"We're in a global race and we need to make sure we're competitive, that the EU is competitive. That means deregulation, supporting enterprise, doing trade deals with the biggest countries in the world," he said.
By the time the summit ended on Friday lunchtime, Cameron claimed to have achieved what he had set out to achieve.
At a press conference, he welcomed the "useful progress" made on efforts to stimulate growth and jobs. He said that calls for new international trade deals could lead to the creation of "over two million jobs" in the EU.
But the real focus of the summit was elsewhere, and it was French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who steered the agenda. The talks were dominated by a debate over the future of a banking union that Britain has already said it won't be involved in.
Discussions between France, Germany and other nations dragged out until the early hours of the morning on Friday before a compromise deal was reached. Cameron acknowledged that this topic "took up most of the time last night."
"We support a working banking union," Cameron said. "Obviously Britain wouldn't be involved in the banking union. You have a banking union because you have a single currency, not a single market."
Is Britain isolating itself?
Cameron is facing increasing criticism for his general stance on Europe. On the fringe of the EU summit, Finnish Europe Minister Alex Stubb suggested that the UK was isolating itself.
"I think Britain is right now voluntarily putting itself in the margins," he told Reuters on Thursday. "It's almost as if the boat is pulling away and one of our best friends is somehow saying 'bye bye' and there's not really that much we can do about it."
Asked for his response, Cameron was ebullient: "I just don't accept that is the case," he told journalists. "We are a very active and strong participant in the EU … We're realists about the EU."
He added that Britain was driving the agenda on issues like the single market, and on the situation in Iran and Syria.
Cameron also had to brush off a suggestion by Hollande that Britain was "in retreat."
"I have a reputation for being frank and plain-speaking in Europe. If I don't like something, I say so," Cameron told journalists. "Everyone has to defend their national interest."
UK wants a ‘fresh settlement'
The British prime minister reiterated on Friday that the changes taking place around the eurozone give Britain an opportunity to seek a "fresh settlement" with the EU. He has previously indicated that he would then obtain "fresh consent" from the British public in a referendum after the next general elections, due in 2015.
"I don't accept that the EU is fixed and stuck in one track," Cameron said. "It is changing – and you can see how it's changing with the negotiations over the eurozone."
"I'm clear that it's important to keep those markets [with Europe] open and to have a say over the rules of how that trade works," he added.
Cameron parted with a warning shot that he was prepared to use the UK's veto at EU budget talks in Brussels next month. "The British public expect a tough approach, a rigorous approach. We can't have European spending going up and up."
Several countries would like a special budget for the eurozone, with France, Germany and others backing the idea, according to EU diplomats.
The idea of a special budget for the eurozone was first spelled out by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in his recent 'Issues paper on completing the Economic and Monetary Union'.
EU countries are currently discussing what type of income and expenditure the budget would cover, with the aim of putting in place an instrument for financial and macroeconomic intervention against “asymmetric shocks”.
Tricky discussions lie ahead on how the two budgets would function in the EU's current institutional architecture.