US President Barack Obama waded into the boiling debate over Britain’s European Union membership on Tuesday (2 February), telling Prime Minister David Cameron his country was best served inside the 28-country bloc.
Obama spoke with Cameron by phone and “reaffirmed continued US support for a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union,” according to the White House.
Obama’s intervention comes as Cameron attempts to secure face-saving concessions from Brussels, ahead of an expected UK referendum on EU membership in June.
Washington has long backed Britain playing a central role in the world’s largest economic bloc, warning the “special relationship” could be at risk if Britain were to leave.
Cameron also favors EU membership, but has called for a series of changes to EU rules, in a bid to placate factions of his deeply sceptical Conservative Party.
EU Council President Donald Tusk earlier unveiled his proposals to keep Britain in the club, firing the starting gun on weeks of negotiations.
The proposals include a four-year “emergency brake” on welfare payments for EU migrant workers, protection for countries that do not use the euro and a “red card” system giving national parliaments more power.
Cameron said Tusk’s plans showed “real progress” and made it likely that he would campaign to stay in the European Union in a referendum expected in June.
But Eurosceptics in Britain dismissed the proposals as worthless, and they could be a hard sell ahead of the 18-19 February summit for some EU states, who fear that Cameron is winning too many concessions.
“To be, or not to be together, that is the question which must be answered not only by the British people in a referendum, but also by the other 27 members of the EU in the next two weeks,” Tusk said in a letter to EU leaders.
Tusk later warned that a deal was not certain in the pre-summit negotiations, which will begin in earnest on Friday (4 February) when EU diplomats meet in Brussels.
“It’s still a lot of work ahead of us. The stakes are really high,” Tusk told the BBC. “Nothing is easy in this case.”
London’s bid to transform its EU membership has added to the turmoil in the bloc as it struggles with its worst migration crisis since World War II and the fallout from the eurozone debt saga.
As part of a charm offensive, Cameron will visit Poland and Denmark on Friday then Germany next week for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Wednesday (3 February) he will also set out details of the plan to parliament in London, his first opportunity to test reaction to the draft deal.
The British premier said Tusk’s proposal showed that he had “secured some very important changes”.
“If I could get these terms for British membership I sure would opt in for being a member of the EU,” Cameron said in a speech in southwest England.
Tusk’s most controversial proposal is an “emergency brake” that would allow any EU state to limit the welfare payments migrants from other European countries can claim for up to four years after their arrival.
To pull the brake, states would have to prove an “exceptional situation,” in which their welfare system and public services are overwhelmed, get approval from the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and then from other bloc leaders in a majority vote.
But instead of Cameron’s demand for an outright ban, such limitations should be gradually reduced over the four years.
Czech Secretary for European Affairs, Tomas Prouza, said the welfare brake plan was “acceptable,” striking a more positive note after central European countries voiced concern the scheme would discriminate against their citizens working in Britain.
But British Eurosceptics were unconvinced, with London Mayor Boris Johnson, from Cameron’s own Conservative Party, saying he had “doubts” about their effectiveness.
UK Independence Party head Nigel Farage dismissed Tusk’s proposals as “pathetic” and “hardly worth the wait”.
Despite concerns in France, Tusk’s plan also includes a “mechanism” by which the nine countries that are not in the euro can raise concerns about decisions by the eurozone.
But he stressed that the mechanism could not delay or veto urgent decisions by the 19 countries in the euro.
Britain will be further exempted from the EU’s stated goal of “ever closer union” because of its “special status” in the bloc’s treaties – including staying out of the euro and the passport-free Schengen area.
The ‘red card’ system would allow a group representing 55 percent of the EU’s national parliaments to stop or change draft EU laws.
Although Cameron has only set a deadline of end-2017 to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU, sources have said he is keen to push a vote through by June.
That would avoid the fallout from any new flare-up in Europe’s migration crisis this summer and British Eurosceptic elements becoming even more unruly.
Opinion polls are split on whether Britons would back leaving the EU in their first vote on the subject since 1975.