Significant progress on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for EU reform is unlikely at today’s (24 June) summit of European leaders in Brussels.
Cameron will brief the EU’s 28 national leaders over dinner Thursday (25 June) about the reforms he expects from Europe in return for a “yes” campaign in Britain’s upcoming referendum on EU membership.
But EU diplomats earlier moved to dampen down expectations of anything beyond an agreement to begin looking into some of the technical issues surrounding the possible changes.
Rather than starting a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU, the objective of today’s summit will be to “define a method” so that EU heads of states can reconvene to agree “the scope of what can be discussed” with Britain, one senior diplomat explained.
This “exploratory phase of scope definition” will take place over the coming months until another meeting of EU leaders addresses the issue in December, the diplomat said.
In any case, any commitment to EU reform will take place “when the time comes, when we’re ready”, the diplomat added, dashing Cameron’s hopes of clinching a quick reform deal.
Cameron’s hopes dashed
The June summit was described as critical by some diplomats before May’s general election in the UK. It was also thought that Cameron was going to use the summit to go into greater detail on his reforms.
The meeting is instead going to be dominated by Greece’s potential default and the EU’s response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean.
Leaders are likely to agree to begin preparatory technical work on Cameron’s wish list of changes.
While Cameron has not given full details of his aims, he is looking to restrict welfare tourism, have greater powers for national Parliaments and an opt-out for Britain from the principle of “ever closer union”. He also wants measures to boost the EU’s competitiveness such as the cutting of burdensome regulation.
Cameron was elected after promising to hold an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. Secondary legislation is being prepared in the UK Parliament that would allow the referendum date to be moved forward. He has said he will campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed EU.
Although the December put-off is likely to be perceived as a defeat for Cameron’s agenda, diplomats said the only deadline in play was the end of 2017.
At time of writing, Cameron had spoken to 20 other EU leaders. He plans to talk to all the heads before his presentation over dinner.
The presentation would be relatively short, as he had already broadly described his demands to the leaders, EU diplomats said. European Council President Donald Tusk is likely to give an indication on how the process would be taken forward.
Treaty change out of the question
“This process is being begun in the Council and it must end in the Council,” one senior diplomat said before conceding that reforms needing treaty change, for example, would make the European Parliament a player in the treaty negotiation process.
But any talk of treaty change appears out of the question, partly because of national elections in France and Germany scheduled for 2017. Appetite for modifying the EU treaties has considerably dwindled now that the worst of the eurozone debt crisis has passed. A recent report by the Presidents of five key EU institutions made no mention of treaty change before 2017.
“The legal framework is clear: there will be no revision of the treaties,” said another senior diplomat from a large EU member state. According to this source, the best Cameron can obtain from today’s summit will be an acknowledgement that Europe can evolve at different speeds and a recognition that eurozone member states can decide to strengthen their cooperation and put in place specific instruments to do so.
“We can perfectly understand that others, like Britain, do not wish to participate in the euro. So the connection between the two has to be articulated, which is not necessarily easy to do in reality,” the diplomat admitted.
The agreement to begin technical work was important because the changes needed would require a long, torturous process of analysis, the first diplomat said.
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?
- 24-25 June: Cameron to brief EU leaders about Britain's reform proposals at European Council summit
- June-Dec. 2015: "Exploratory phase" to define the scope of Britain's renegotiation with the EU
- 17-18 Dec. 2015: EU summit to agree scope and timetable for renegotiation