European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Friday (15 December) that he was “quite sure” the EU and Britain would reach a deal at February’s summit on London’s renegotiation demands to stay in the bloc.
That is the strongest hint yet that a deal could be reached next month, enabling British Prime Minister David Cameron to hold his in/out referendum in the autumn, or even a snap poll in June.
Speaking at a press conference, Juncker said, “I am quite sure that we’ll have a deal – not a compromise, a solution, a permanent solution – in February.”
“I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I know that we have to deliver,” adding that “my knowledge” allowed him to be confident of a deal.
But Juncker also warned that all of the demands from Cameron – who has promised a referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest – would be tough to reach agreement on.
“The issues put on the table by the British prime minister are all difficult issues,” said Juncker. “Don’t think there is one issue which would be particularly difficult – although it is and that’s the welfare issue — and that the other points mentioned by the British will be less important, and easy. They are not,” he said.
“Even ever-closer union, the role of national parliaments, the relations between the ins and the outs in the euro system, all these are very, very difficult issues and we have to work hard in thiese days to come to agreements.”
The British side parcel their demands up into four so-called ‘baskets – the most controversial of which is a move to ban in-work benefits for EU migrants for the first four years of working in the UK.
Opponents, led by Poland, but also with some backing from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, say this is discriminatory, and threatens free movement within the EU.
The UK is already outside both the Schengen zone, and the single currency.
Cameron also wants an exemption from the ‘ever closer union’ clause, seen as more manageable, and protection for non-eurozone member states, and greater economic competitiveness and less red tape.
The prime minister announced this week that – during the campaign, but only after negotiations with Brussels have finished – his cabinet ministers will be free to campaign for either an ‘in’ or an ‘out vote.
This is a rare exemption from the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility. At least three of four Cabinet ministers are certain to campaign for an ‘out’ vote, with others waiting to decide in the wake of the completed negotiations.
Britain’s opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, as well as the Scottish National Party and Greens, are all officially in favour of remaining in the EU, with the exception of a few maverick MPs.
UKIP, which has only one MP at Westminster, but 24 MEPs, was founded in order to campaign for Britain to leave the EU.
Cameron, and his Chancellor George Osborne, have made it clear they will campaign for an ‘in’ vote if their four renegotiation conditions are met. Most eyes are now on which way Boris Johnson, the charismatic Mayor of London and possible future Conservative leader, will campaign.
Cameron has previously announced he would retire before the next election, due in 2020, but this week insisted he would not resign if he lost the referendum.
Opionion polls on a possible Brexit have narrowed, although the most recent average of six polls showed a 55-45 majority in favour of staying.