Newly re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron will have his first talks with other European Union leaders on Friday (22 May) on reforms he is seeking to the EU before holding a referendum by the end of 2017, on Britain’s membership.
Cameron will use a summit in the Latvian capital between the EU and six former Soviet republics as an opportunity to sound out other EU leaders on his demands for changes that could influence whether Britain remains part of the 28-nation union.
“Today I will start discussions in earnest with fellow leaders on reforming the EU and renegotiating the UK’s relationship with it,” Cameron said in a statement.
“These talks will not be easy. They will not be quick. There will be different views and disagreements along the way. But by working together in the right spirit and sticking at it, I believe we can find solutions that will address the concerns of the British people and improve the EU as a whole,” he said.
Cameron has emerged strengthened from the May 7 general election after his Conservative Party won an unexpected parliamentary majority, albeit a narrow one.
Cameron, who said on Thursday that restricting EU migrants’ access to Britain’s welfare system would be a requirement in his renegotiation, will set out his reform plans in more detail at a meeting of EU leaders in late June.
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 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.
“I sincerely hope we can find good solutions for Britain,” Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt told reporters as she arrived for the Riga meeting.
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said he would be open to Britain’s proposals but, in a clear reference to free movement, he said: “We are not thinking that we should lose or even have less of the main, basic freedoms of the EU. I think these freedoms are extremely important.”
Governments in the poorer states of eastern Europe are eager to keep their people’s access to better paying work in the west.
The British leader has said his preference is for Britain to remain in a reformed EU, but he has not ruled out campaigning for an exit if he fails to get the changes he wants.
As well as reforms to welfare access for EU migrants, Cameron has said he wants to win an opt-out from the idea of “ever closer” union inside the bloc, cut red tape emanating from Brussels and allow national parliaments to work together to block EU legislation.
A key question is whether Cameron can achieve his aims without reforming the EU treaty, which could open a Pandora’s box of demands from other countries.
“Treaty change is only a way to achieve something. If we agree what we want to achieve, then we definitely don’t say that treaty change is an absolute impossibility, but let’s first agree on what we want to achieve,” Roivas said.
David Cameron's ruling Conservative party won an outright majority in the 2015 parliamentary election, allowing them to govern alone.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate the country's relationship with the EU and then call a referendum by 2017 on whether to stay or leave, a decision with far-reaching implications for trade, investment and Britain's place in the world.
The Tory government may use the momentum from its win to bring the vote forward to 2016, avoiding clashes with French and German national elections due in Spring 2017.
The British premier has previously said he would be “delighted” if renegotiation of the terms of UK membership could be agreed quickly and the vote brought forward.
- By end 2017: Britain to hold in/out referendum on the country's EU membership