Brussels will breathe a sigh of relief when I’m gone, says Cameron

David Cameron at his post-summit press conference on 20 March. [European Council]

EU leaders and officials will breathe “a sigh of relief” if David Cameron loses May’s national elections, the British Prime Minister said Friday (20 March) after possibly his last European Council meeting.

The next summit will take place in June, after the general election. If Cameron wins, he has promised an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership. If he is defeated, the next meeting of heads of state and government will most likely be attended by Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Cameron said, “If you vote for anyone else, you are likely to get a prime minister who comes here and says, ‘You can all relax, there will be no renegotiations, no referendum, no difficult choices, no difficult reforms – breathe a sigh of relief.’

“That will be the message if Ed Miliband is standing here at the June summit […] and I am sure there will be some people in Brussels who will breathe a sigh of relief if I’m not here.”

Asked if there was anything he would miss about Brussels, and if other EU leaders would miss him, Cameron said the working hours of the summit needed improvement. It would make sense to start summits in the morning rather than afternoon to avoid working until 4:00 AM, he said.

“But if it’s four o’clock in the morning you have to work to, to get the budget cut, I am here and I am doing it. If it’s four o’clock in the morning that you need to be here to veto a treaty that is not in Britain’s interest, I am here and I do it,” he said.

“I will be there and ready for the fight,” he added.

Cameron said that a Conservative election victory would mean he could return to Brussels with a clear mandate for reform.

“If you have a mandate for change, that mandate will be taken seriously [in Brussels],” he said.

After it was pointed out that Greece’s Alexis Tsipras had a similar mandate and was not succeeding in changing the terms of his country’s EU bailout, Cameron dismissed the comparison.

The UK was not in the eurozone and the situation was different, he argued. “This organisation [the EU] is not perfect, it needs reform, it needs change,” he said.

But if you come to Brussels with a clear agenda to engage other member states, it was possible to get results, the prime minister said.

He pointed to foreign policy as an example. Britain had led the way in Europe, to leverage humanitarian support for the Ebola crisis, he said.

The sanctions on Russia and the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capability were other examples of success, he said.

>>Read: Cameron announces fund to fight Russian ‘bullies’

EU reforms

Cameron’s insistence on the need for reform on issues such as cutting regulation and red tape, fighting perceived “welfare tourism” and the free movement of EU citizens within the bloc. He said he was certain Donald Tusk “would be helpful” in pursuing reform, despite reports that the European Council President was reluctant to change the EU treaties.

Tusk had said rewriting the EU treaties to curb migration would be “close to Mission Impossible”.

But Cameron told reporters, “Tom Cruise normally prevails in the end. He’s a little bit smaller than me, but I hope to be just as effective.”

Election defeat would spell the end to an infamously tetchy relationship with the EU and some leaders, notably European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Cameron appeared in no mood to diffuse those tensions at his post summit press conference, which came a day after Chancellor George Osborne made his budget speech.

The UK’s economic recovery was in stark contrast to the eurozone, he said, before pointing out more jobs were created in Britain in the five years since he took office, than the rest of Europe put together.

“Yorkshire has created more jobs than the whole of France,” he added. Yorkshire is a British county, far smaller than France.

Tetchy relationship

Cameron forced a vote on Juncker’s selection as Commission President by the Council. Only the UK and Hungary stood against Juncker.

Under his stewardship, in 2011, the UK vetoed a new EU-wide treaty aimed at addressing, and preventing another euro crisis. Cameron said he blocked the treaty change because he was not offered safeguards for British national interests, but critics said the move isolated the UK.

Immigration and EU-UK relations are central battlegrounds in the forthcoming elections, and it is not the first time Cameron has used post-summit press conferences to play to those national concerns.

The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) could poach valuable seats from the Tories in May’s elections.  It wants to take the UK out of the EU and introduce an Australian-style point system for immigration.

Last night it emerged that high profile UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson was suspended by her party after accusations of EU expenses fraud.

Asked for his reaction to that news, Cameron said it was, “Just the latest in a set of catastrophic blunders, disasters and missteps for this party.”

>>Read: UKIP MEP suspended after expenses scandal

The 7 May UK general election will go a long way towards deciding whether Britain will stay in the European Union, or choose to leave, after 40 years of uneasy relations.

A surge in Eurosceptism has firmly pushed the European Union onto the political agenda in Britain.

The ruling Conservatives have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017 if they win the election, placing Europe's future at the centre of the debate.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would campaign for the UK to stay, but only if the EU was able to reform, saying “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union."

>> Read: Voting on Brexit: The EU issues shaping the UK election

EU leaders, including Cameron, are meeting on 19-20 March to discuss plans for the EU's Energy Union and the Ukraine Crisis. 

  • 7 May: UK general election
  • 2017: Mooted date of referendum on UK membership of EU

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