Talks on a deal to keep Britain in the EU will go down to the wire at a leaders summit next week after negotiators failed to reach a breakthrough on the key issues on Thursday (11 February), European sources said.
The main sticking points include Britain’s demands for protection for countries that do not use the euro currency and the length of time it can limit welfare benefits for European Union migrant workers, they said.
Negotiators made “good progress on technical, legal clarifications” to proposals that EU chief Donald Tusk made last week to try to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron’s reform demands, an EU source said.
“But the main political issues are still outstanding […] and they will have to be dealt with by leaders next week,” an EU source said after the talks wrapped up in Brussels.
Tusk, who visits Berlin, Paris and other capitals next week for talks on the deal, will “intensify his consultations with leaders” in a bid to “ensure broad political support for the settlement,” the source added.
Cameron wants a deal at the 18-19 February summit before holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, probably in June.
In a sign that one of the most controversial issues is Britain’s demands for safeguards for so-called “euro outs”, Tusk on Thursday met Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijssebloem, European Central Bank official Benoit Coeure and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to discuss the “Brexit” talks.
Brake not watered down
A British government spokeswoman said that the main proposals for Britain remained “on the table untouched”.
“We think we are in a good place, although there is more work to do and more details to be nailed down, and that work will continue,” the spokeswoman told AFP.
“Crucial for us is that the proposal for the emergency brake on welfare benefits has not been watered down.”
With time running out, Tusk said Tuesday that he had cleared his diary until the summit to hold more talks with EU leaders. He added that he still hoped for a deal but warning that the process was “very fragile”.
Tusk meets Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel in Brussels on Friday and will travel to Berlin and Paris for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on Monday or Tuesday.
He will also meet Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, as well as the President of Romania and the Czech Prime Minister, who currently heads the “Visegrad Group’ of eastern European states, which oppose the migrant benefit changes.
A text of the draft being discussed by diplomats, obtained by AFP, shows some elements watered down to address the concerns of France in particular about the protections for non-eurozone nations.
It also ties the four-year “emergency brake” on welfare benefit payments for EU migrant workers more specifically to Britain, to make it harder for other countries to try to win a similar concession.
It does this by limiting the brake to countries that failed to take advantage of temporary immigration controls after eastern European states joined the EU in 2004 — of which Britain was one of the only two.
A key question – how long Britain will be able to keep the brake system in operation – remains blank in the draft.
Several countries are also concerned about plans to change the EU’s treaties to reflect the British demands, with some saying it should be enough that a summit agreement is made legally binding, the sources said.