UK Prime Minster David Cameron yesterday (27 January) ditched meetings with Sweden and Denmark’s leaders to discuss the negotiations over British demands for EU reform with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The shock decision has led to speculation that the tricky negotiations have hit trouble. Diplomatic sources denied that. The European Commission said the meeting would be to discuss the state of play of the negotiations before the 18 February European Council meeting.
It emerged this morning (28 January) that Cameron would meet European Council President Donald Tusk in London on Sunday.
A spokesman for Tusk said on Thursday, “The purpose of the meeting will be a discussion before [Tusk] finalises his proposal covering all four [British reform demands]. The proposal is expected to be tabled early next week,” he said.
Cameron was due to discuss his demands for EU reform in Sweden and Denmark on Friday (29 January). EURACTIV understands that will now happen over the phone, and that it was his decision to meet Juncker in Brussels instead. A senior government source declined to say whether Cameron or Juncker had requested the meeting.
Elected on a promise to hold the in/out referendum by the end of 2017, the prime minister wants to ban in-work benefits for EU migrants for the first four years of working in the UK.
Cameron also wants an exemption from the ‘ever closer union’ clause, protection for non-eurozone member states, and greater economic competitiveness and less red tape, as the price for backing ‘ín’.
— Sofia Bettiza (@SofiaBettiza) January 27, 2016
Hopes were high that the 18 February European Council would see EU leaders reach a deal on the demands. That would allow Cameron to claim victory and call the referendum this year, most likely in June.
“As you would expect, as we get closer to the February Council, there are meetings to be held with some of the people most closely involved in the process.The opportunity for meeting on Friday has come up, so we are taking that opportunity,” the source said, adding that the last-minute meeting with Juncker was “absolutely” a positive development.
Cameron’s spokeswoman told reporters, “Across Europe, we are seeing leaders – whether in the institutions or other countries – clear that they want to see a deal secured in February. “The ambition is there. There’s clearly more work to do,” she said.
In order to reach an agreement, expert lawyers will need a draft deal by early February. Once vetted, it will go forward to the Council.
Even if that deadline is met, there is no guarantee a deal will be reached. Cameron said in Davos last week that he would not take a February deal, unless it was right for Britain.
On Tuesday (26 January), foreign secretary Philip Hammond damped down expectations of the deal, saying that the migration crisis meant other EU countries “had a lot on their hands.”
#Hammond: If deal not done in February June referendum becomes very difficult
— Open Europe (@OpenEurope) January 26, 2016
Commission and UKIP go head-to-head
The European Commission’s ‘Brexit boss’ Jonathan Faull is the veteran British EU official tasked with heading up the executive’s strategy on the referendum.
At a Brussels meeting chaired by leader Nigel Farage with the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, which includes UKIP, Faull yesterday said immigration and welfare had been difficult issues.
“That is often described as the most difficult issue, it is not the only difficult issues, there are others too,” Faull said. “As I sit here now, I don’t know what will come out of the Council in few weeks’ time, I don’t think anyone does.”
But, he added, “There is a very strong desire on behalf of other leaders to respond to the British prime minister’s concerns and if possible keep the UK in the EU.”
Treaty change a sticking point?
Whether the reforms would require changing the EU treaties has also been a bone of contention, with critics saying the UK could not demand “Europe a la carte”.
Eurosceptic MEPs asked Faull about the need for treaty change. At the moment, the Commission was focusing on the content of the demands, he answered.
“When we think we have answers we have to consult with our lawyers to see what has to be done,” Faull said. “There may be things outside the bounds of current treaties, if everyone desires, that can only be solved by amending the treaties.”
Treaty change must be ratified by all member states, either by referendum or by their parliaments.
Nigel Farage asked if it was fair to assume there would be no treaty change. Faull said it was impossible to assume anything.
Farage said, “I know what my money is on personally.”
Failure to secure treaty change will be seized on by the Out campaign as proof of Cameron’s weakness in the negotiations.
Faull fended off accusations from UKIP MEP Roger Helmer that the EU would pour funds into propaganda to convince the British to vote to remain in the bloc in the upcoming referendum.
“The Commission will not spend a penny on propaganda in the referendum campaign. We will not indulge in propaganda at all,” Faull said.
“We have no intention of participating directly in the referendum campaign, we never do.”
Farage said that the Commission called ‘propaganda’ information, citing billboards in Ireland during its referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
“The Commission will continue to inform businesses, citizens and, consumers about its activities. We not going to close down spokespersons’ service, or our offices in the UK,” said Faull, who described this as “business as usual”.
But we will not do propaganda, and we will not finance campaigns, he said.
Faull told the Eurosceptic MEPs, “We make no bones about the fact we want the UK to stay in the EU.”
I anticipate a wall of European Commission money flooding UK masquerading as ‘information’, as happened in Ireland. https://t.co/3yGp6ZZaLj
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) January 27, 2016
Out campaign group Business for Britain said in August last year that the EU spent €664 million directly on publicity and communication spending in 2014. More widely, the EU committed up to €3.9 billion (£3.1bn) to budgets that contained provisions for EU promotional spending.
Pieter Cleppe, head of EU reform think tank Open Europe’s Brussels office said, ““Even if the Commission does not spend money campaigning directly it should be careful over its interventions.
“These range from direct verbal interventions from Commission personnel to indirect interventions via the numerous bodies funded by the Commission, which have a particular stance on the EU.”
Cleppe added, “The Commission should not intervene in any form in a national states democratic process and if it did, it is likely such intervention would backfire.”
Open Europe in 2008 published a report stating the Commission had spent €2.4bn – more than Coca Cola spends each year on advertising – on promoting itself worldwide.
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.
- 29 January: Cameron meets Juncker in Brussels
- 18 February: European Council meeting
- June 2016: Rumoured favoured date of Cameron for holding the referendum.
- End of 2017: Deadline for referendum.
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.
Business for Britain
- Paper: EU propaganda