British Prime Minister David Cameron and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker will try to thrash out a deal on migrant benefits on Friday in a final push for a reform deal to keep Britain in the EU.
The European Union is expected to make its proposals on Monday (1 February) in time to reach an agreement at a crunch summit in February, which would then allow Cameron to hold a referendum on membership of the 28-nation bloc in June.
In a sign of the urgency of the talks, Cameron cancelled a visit to Denmark and Sweden to hold Friday’s working lunch with Juncker (29 January), while he will also have a hastily-arranged dinner with EU president Donald Tusk in London on Sunday.
The talks with Juncker – the head of the EU’s executive, which would initiate any legislation needed for the deal – are expected to focus on Cameron’s demands for a four-year limit before EU workers in Britain can claim welfare payments.
An emergency “migration brake” that would allow Britain to put limits on immigration or on welfare payments for EU migrants is one of the options that the EU is examining, diplomatic sources have told AFP.
Asked about the “brake” plan, Cameron said on Thursday night (28 January) during a visit to the Scottish city of Aberdeen: “I’m glad that others in Europe are now taking on board this issue and looking at strong alternatives to the proposal I put forward.”
“What’s good is that others in Europe are bringing forward ideas to address this problem so we have better control of movement of people into our country,” he added.
Many EU states have rejected what they say are discriminatory calls by Conservative party leader Cameron – who was re-elected in May – for a limit on benefits in a union that prizes freedom of movement.
EU proposal likely Monday
Officials say Cameron’s other demands are likely to be easier: safeguards against more political integration in the EU, protection of countries that do not use the euro currency – a key issue for the City of London financial district – and the boosting of economic competitiveness.
Tusk’s office said the former Polish premier would finalise his proposals for a deal to avoid a so-called “Brexit” from the EU after his meeting with Cameron on Sunday, which would cover all four areas.
Tusk is likely to table his proposals on Monday, European sources told AFP.
Cameron set them out to other EU leaders at a summit in December in which senior European officials said he had made a convincing case, overcoming last minute objections by a handful of countries.
France has however appeared sceptical in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls warning at the Davos forum last week that a deal was unlikely at the February summit.
But Downing Street insisted the flurry of last-minute talks with top EU officials – he is also due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hamburg on February 12 – were “absolutely” a positive development.
These meetings are “further evidence of the desire to continue the renegotiations to work towards getting that best possible deal for the British people,” Cameron’s spokesman said.
“If we don’t get it in February, we’ll wait until the next time,” he said.
The following EU summit is in March but British officials have said that is likely to be too late to allow preparations for a referendum in June, which is believed to be Cameron’s preferred date.
Cameron has openly said that he will have the vote before the end of 2017, but the longer he waits the more he is at the mercy of events in a bloc threatened by an unprecedented migration crisis, and by rifts in his own party over Europe.
The British premier has said his ministers will be allowed to campaign for or against EU membership in the referendum, but key eurosceptic figures such as London Mayor Boris Johnson are apparently set to back Cameron despite their doubts.
Several British business leaders have warned of the economic dangers of leaving the EU.
Opinion polls show the electorate is roughly split between voters wanting to leave the EU and those who want to stay.