European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today in Strasbourg (3 February) told Members of the European Parliament to back the deal struck by David Cameron and Donald Tusk to keep Britain in the EU.
“You must all understand the European Parliament must be signed up to support the settlement,” he said. “The settlement is fair for the UK, the EU member states and the European Parliament.”
But UKIP leader, and MEP, Nigel Farage blasted it. “There is no treaty change, no control over our borders, in fact no changes at all. It was hardly worth the wait,” he said.
Meanwhile in London, British Prime Minister Cameron urged MPs in Westminster to unite behind his drive to agree a series of European Union reforms at a crunch Brussels summit.
“Let’s fight this together,” Cameron said as he defended the series of draft proposals that have angered Eurosceptics from his own Conservative Party, before saying the referendum date would not be too soon after regional elections planned for 5 May.
The European Parliament will be involved in talks ahead of the 18 February showdown summit with EU leaders on the deal. MEPs will eventually have to vote on whether to pass the “emergency brake” law to curtail new EU migrants to Britain claiming benefits, making their support for the watered down deal vital.
That will only happen if the UK votes to stay in in the referendum, which is expected in June. The brake will take at least a year after that to get onto the lawbooks.
Instead of the outright four year ban on arriving EU migrants claiming benefits promised by Cameron in his election manifesto, migrants will be able to gradually increase their handouts over time.
Farage said the humiliation of Britain would continue at the crunch meeting in Brussels, where EU leaders would negotiate the deal.
“Like Oliver Twist, Mr Cameron will parade in front of other leaders and say, ‘please can I have some more concessions’ and I am sure of one thing, he won’t get another thing,” Farage said in the debate.
He said, “It’s hardly an emergency brake, it’s more of a handbrake turn.”
One UKIP MEP shouted, “It’s a tea break” – before the Eurosceptic party was scolded for continued heckling by Parliament President Martin Schulz.
Juncker hit back. “Apart from the UKIP representatives and other political parties on the extreme wings of this house, all members of all political parties have pleaded to keep the UK in the EU.”
He blamed Britain for not using phase in periods for migration offered by the EU in 2004, after ten countries, many from Eastern Europe, joined the bloc in 2004.
“The UK will be allowed to use the [emergency brake] mechanism to redress the effects of that decision,” Juncker said.
But that did not convince Manfred Weber and Gianni Pitella, the leaders of the two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats.
Weber said the deal was a “sound basis for further discussion,” but warned, “we don’t want only a British Europe, we want a Europe for all”. Pitella demanded “more clarity over the issue of workers’ rights”.
Juncker also admitted that the EU was struggling to deal with the migration crisis that has seen countries in the bloc throw up border controls in the passport-free Schengen area.
“At the moment, we haven’t got an awful lot to be proud of,” he said. “Some are saying this is a psychodrama where Europe is falling apart little by little.”
United States of Europe
Syed Kamall is a Conservative MEP and leader of the European Conservatives and Reformist Group. He said the EU Parliament must respect the choice of the British people.
Kamall said some MEPs wanted to push on with European integration, no matter what voters said.
“For those of you who want your project of a United States of Europe – don’t hide your views until after the referendum,” he said.
Guy Verhofstadt is a former Belgian PM and leader of the Liberal ALDE group. He has already vowed to travel to the UK and debate Farage during the referendum campaign.
A long-time advocate of a United States of Europe, Verhofstadt said Britain leaving would be a huge mistake, economically and geopolitically.
“Europe without Britain – let’s be honest it’s a dwarf. We Belgians know what it is like to be a dwarf and Britain will know what it is like to be a dwarf if it leaves.It is in fact [Russian President] Putin who wins in this game. Because Putin likes a divided Europe. Putin and Mr Farage,” he said.
UKIP MEP David Coburn asked Kamall, the senior Tory MEP, if it was possible to have a fair immigration policy, where all migrants were treated the same no matter where they came from, if Britain stayed in the EU.
Kamall said, “If you want an immigration policy where everyone from outside the UK is treated equally, be they from Australia or Austria […] you cannot achieve that by remaining in the EU.”
“But what I don’t like about your party when it talks about immigration is when it starts to imitate the BNP,” the London MEP, who is of Indo-Guyanese descent, said. The British National Party (BNP) is a racist far right party in the UK.
Coburn, UKIP’s only Scottish MEP and an opponent of gay marriage despite being homosexual himself, also asked Marine Le Pen why migrants were camping in Calais.
Le Pen, leader of France’s extreme right National Front, said the refugee camps were in Calais because the UK had a border.
“If we in France had our internal borders back, if we weren’t in this ridiculous Schengen, then those people would very probably be back home,” she raged.
She said no one was taken in by the idea that the Brits could change the EU for the better with the deal.
“Finally this whole thing will be seen for the charade it is, and the EU will collapse and people will get their sovereignty back,” she said.
Germany, France and Poland react
Germany was carefully examing the “ambitious package” of proposals, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.
Poland, the biggest supplier of migrant labour to Britain, has been among the most vocal opponents of any measures it thought would discriminate its citizens working in Britain.
“Some parts of this compromise seem beneficial,” Witold Waszczykowski said during a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest.
“First of all, it would not affect people who have already migrated to Britain, they will not lose any social benefits,” he said.
On Tuesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said that Poland will want to see the details of an EU proposal to allow Britain to suspend social payments to migrants before accepting a final deal.
France sees proposals by a top European Union official to keep Britain in the bloc as a basis for discussion but within limits, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said.
“Two points are extremely important for France,” Le Foll quoted Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as telling a cabinet meeting. “We must stay within the current treaties and there can be no interference from non-euro zone countries in the eurozone.”
British 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.
5 February: Sherpas meet for talks on draft deal.
12 February: Second sherpa meeting.
18 February 2016: EU leaders to discuss Cameron's reform demands.
June 2016: Rumoured favoured date of Cameron for holding the referendum.
End of 2017: Deadline for referendum.
July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.