On the eve on a European Council summit that will look at Britain’s on-going renegotiations of its membership of the bloc, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appeared to stumble over his words Wednesday (14 October) on whether the UK even needed Brussels.
Briefing MEPs in the European Parliament about the summit, Juncker seemed to say “Personally, I don’t think Britain needs the European Union…” – although his spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, later clarified that he had in fact said “do” – which would also make sense from the context.
However, the spoken words were mumbled and unclear, and UKIP immediately jumped on the bumble, with leader Nigel Farage saying he “wanted to buy Juncker some champagne … His statement today that personally ‘I don’t think Britain needs the European Union’ is spot on.”
Earlier, it became clear that any hope of progress on Britain’s vexed renegotiations of its EU membership will have to wait until at least December, according to senior EU officials Wednesday (14 October), playing down any hopes of significant progress at this week’s EU Council summit.
Stating that it “takes as long as it takes” and “we’ll be ready when we’re ready”, an EU diplomat defended the so-far secretive talks on legal, technical and preparatory work for Britain to have a looser relationship with the 28-member bloc.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged a referendum by the end of 2017 on the UK staying or leaving the EU, dependent on the outcome of the talks.
But Thursday’s (15 October) summit has already seen discussion of the UK’s case relegated to an “other items” at the bottom of the agenda, behind the migration crisis and Syria, under the stewardship of Council President Donald Tusk.
A leak of the summit’s draft conclusions on the Statewatch website says it will merely devote just 18 words to the issue: “The European Council was informed about the process ahead concerning the UK plans for an (in/out) referendum.”
Speaking ahead of the summit – which is now not expected to run into a second day – the EU diplomat conceded that Britain’s demands were not “easy and straightforward” and refused to explicitly rule out adding to the current “shopping list” of four key renegotiation demands.
Those four issues – first set out by Cameron at a speech at Bloomberg in London in 2013 – are for an exemption from “ever closer union”, restrictions on welfare for EU migrants, protection of the rights of member states outside the single currency, and a new focus on economic growth and competitiveness.
>> For more, read our LinksDossier: The UK’s EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?
“That isn’t the intention but we do need to make progress and deliver outcomes,” said the diplomat, when asked if the current shopping list could be expanded to other elements. “[We have] to get all outcomes in each of the baskets [issues] – and that will be difficult.
“Everything will hinge on what he [Cameron] gets.”
Legal, technical and preparatory work has been progressing since the last summit in June in all areas – apparently without any written records being kept for fear of leaks – but short of top political level negotiations.
Negotiations will not be “easy and straightforward”
Describing this week’s summit of EU leaders as merely “another staging post” for “teeing up [the] next stage before December’s council,” he stressed “We don’t think we’re putting straightforward requests on the table.”
“I certainly don’t feel at the moment that this is at all going to be easy and straightforward.”
But he defended progress – albeit mostly invisible beyond the corridors of Brussels – as being “we are where we wanted to be [in June].
“[We] wouldn’t expect any of the technical issues to be easy to resolve. Substance comes first. The only deadline is the end of 2017 [the final date for when Cameron has promised his referendum.]”
The UK belatedly joined the EU in January 1973, a decision validated by a referendum two years late to stay in what was then European Economic Community.
The next referendum – partly forced on Cameron by the success of UKIP and the right-wing of his own Conservative party – is likely to be held in 2016, due to French and German national elections the following year.
‘They do not know what we want’
Asked specifically about British media reports that so far all talks had been held without written records – for fears of leaks undermining the discussions – the EU diplomat simply said that we “would expect something, at some stage, in writing.”
But he stressed that “they [the other 27 member states] do know what we want,” and placed particular importance on the finalised technical and legal discussions being opened up to all other 27 members of the bloc for heads of government level negotiations – possibly a sign that recent one-to-one talks between Cameron and the two most important EU leaders, French President François Hollande, and separately German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have yet to yield concrete support.
Revealing the precarious nature of the prospective talks, the diplomat stressed the importance of exploring the “very complex” legal issues, “because once it reaches political level it needs to be very well prepared.”
He also explicitly stated that Britain was a unique case, even among other member states, such as Denmark, Sweden and eastern European countries that have not adopted the euro.
“[We have a] different status from all the other ‘outs’, let alone all the ‘ins’,” he said, pointing out the UK “already had a different relationship” to Brussels, due to its “multiple opt-outs.”
The negotiation was intended to “benefit the entire EU. [The] strategy remains what it has always been – a successful renegotiation of the relationship.”
Asked if the proposed changes would require treaty changes, the answer was that changes must be “clear, permanent and irreversible. There will be elements that have to be legally-binding.”
This week saw the launch of the “in” campaign, headed by a former boss of Marks & Spencers retail chain, whilst last week a group of UK scientists also launched their lobby group to stay in the bloc.
The opposition Labour and Liberal Demcocrats are expected to campaign for a ‘stay’ vote, whilst the resurgent Scottish National Party (SNP) will campaign to stay, whilst leaving open the option of a second referendum on Scottish independence if the rest of the UK votes to leave.
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?
- 15 October: Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hosts a working lunch with UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
- 15-16 October: EU summit, main topic is the refugee and migration crisis. The other two topics are the Economic and Monetary Union and the Referendum in the UK. The President of the European Council Donald Tusk will indicate his intentions for the process ahead.
- 17-18 December: EU summit dedicated to possible reforms to accommodate the UK ahead of the referendum.
- 2016: Likely year for British EU referendum.
- 2017: Self-imposed end of year deadline for British Prime Minister David Cameron to hold his in/out referendum.