David Cameron arrives in Brussels today (16 December) for a crunch EU ‘Brexit’ summit, caught between Eurosceptics at home who regard his renegotiations as “trivial”, and fellow European leaders, who see at least one of his conditions as currently insurmountable.
The two-day European Council is due to stretch into Friday (18 December), and comes against the backdrop of a slew of British opinion polls showing the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps virtually at neck-and- neck.
The key discussion over the UK’s terms of membership are being conducted over dinner on Thursday night (17 December), sandwiched between talks on the terrorism, migration and euro crises.
That more informal setting – according to British press reports – is so that Cameron can ‘eyeball’ fellow heads of government directly, after preparation work by the so-called ‘sherpas’ (negotiating diplomats) have failed so far to find a way through Britain’s demand for an end to in-work benefits for EU migrants for a period of four years.
The British timetable has already slipped, ahead of a renegotiation to precede a referendum either in 2016 or by 2017 at the latest.
In October, senior EU diplomats were warning that that month’s European Council was only a preparatory event for this December meeting.
It is now openly being admitted – by Council President Donald Tusk among others – that this week’s summit, short of a breakthrough, is only a prelude to the next one scheduled for February.
The four so-called ‘baskets’ of UK demands have, however, largely narrowed down in the intervening months to one key stumbling block – discriminating against benefits for foreign migrants, something which Poland, often an ally of the UK in Brussels, is leading opposition to.
But negotiating table (or dining table) in Brussels is only one side of the equation.
Back at home, Cameron is facing the right-wing of his own parliamentary party, plus some four million UKIP voters at the last general election, who claim the whole negotiation is a smokescreen, and not legally enforceable even if successful.
The original four areas of renegotiation for the British were:
- An opt-out for the UK from the “ever close union” preamble of the EU.
- Protection for the non-euro currency members of the 28-strong bloc, and safeguards for the City of London.
- A greater emphasis on competitiveness, and a greater role for national parliaments.
- A curb on in-work tax credits and social housing for EU migrants until they had lived in the UK for four years.
The final demand has set teeth on edge in Brussels, where it goes against legally-binding non-discrimination measures between citizens of fellow member states.
A tentative proposal to impose the restrictions on UK citizens too hit a backlash, and so an idea has been floated in recent days to allow the UK an “emergency brake” to curb the total number of migrants coming to Britain from the EU.
At the weekend, Downing Street was forced to insist it had not rowed back on the proposal, whilst admitting that the destination was more important than the process itself.
These renegotiations are ‘trivial’…
Robert Oxley, spokesman for Vote Leave, told EURACTIV, “’Sham’ would be too heavy a word for it, but these renegotiations have become a number of trivial issues – not the fundamental renegotiation Cameron once promised.”
After seemingly unsuccessful visits to Romania and Poland by the prime minister last week in a bid to drum up support, this week the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond insisted the 4-year plan was still on the table – at least in lieu of any better suggestions.
Hammond said, “We have heard a lot of our partners in Europe have concerns about [it]. So far we haven’t heard any counter-proposals. We haven’t heard any alternative suggestions that will deliver the same effect in a different way.
“But we have made very clear if people have other ideas that will deliver on this very important agenda for British people, we are absolutely prepared to listen to them, and we are prepared to enter into a dialogue about them. But at the moment, the only proposition on the table is our four-year proposal.”
That ‘show your cards’ bluff comes against a backdrop of opinion polls in the UK showing voters evenly split between staying and leaving.
A poll for the Vote Leave campaign found 41% of respondents wanting to leave, with 42% backing remaining in the EU.
The ICM poll then asked how respondents would vote if Cameron achieved no concessions on migration, with the results tilting towards a ‘Brexit’. . In that case, 45% would vote for “Brexit” and 40% would back staying in the EU – or 53% to leave and 47% to remain excluding undecideds.
ICM polled 2,053 people online between 11 and 13 December 2015.
A separate survey, for the heavily-Eurosceptic Daily Express, gave the ‘out’ camp a two-percent lead over the ‘in’s, at 42% to 40% respectively.
‘Nothing will satisfy the ‘out’ campaign…
Peter Wilding, Chairman of British Influence, which campaigns for Britain to stay ‘in’, told EURACTIV the ‘out’ campaign was simply insatiable.
“Outers are crying wolf at the so-called triviality of his demands. But nothing will satisfy them,” he said.
“For Britain, the key demands of focusing the European states on creating a competitive economy, ending ever closer union, allowing a variety of currencies to bloom and giving national parliaments more of a say are already agreed. Sure, there has to be a Europe-wide deal on migration, but already the UK and its allies are changing Europe’s direction in ways unthinkable 20 years ago.
“In the privacy of the Justis Lipsius dinner or preferably in public this summit is Britain’s opportunity to show why she still matters.”
Meanwhile, at Westminster oil was poured on the fires, with a report on Tuesday (15 December) from the European Scrutiny committee warning that any changes negotiated by Cameron would be worthless if they did not include Treaty changes across Europe, not just a promise from fellow heads of state.
The Chairman of the Committee, Sir Bill Cash, said, “Our report is clear that the only way in which the prime minister’s negotiations could be given the legally binding and irreversible effect which he himself has called for – even for minor reforms to the EU, let alone a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU – would be through Treaty amendment, or the equivalent agreement of a Protocol.
“These would be lengthy processes, and each member state would have to agree using its own constitutional procedures including, in some countries, referendums.
“Whatever the promises made in the negotiations, there is no certainty that they will be delivered to the British people. Voters in the forthcoming referendum must be aware of this when they make their choice as to whether to vote to remain in the EU or to leave the EU.”
- 17-18 December 2015: European Council on 'Brexit'.
- February 2016: next scheduled European Council.
- June 2016: David Cameron's rumoured preferred referendum date, if renegotiations are successful.
- End of 2017: deadline for holding UK 'in/out' referendum.