European Union leaders keen to offer British prime minister pact he can sell to his people
Three years after Britain’s prime minister David Cameron delivered his “Bloomberg” speech announcing his plan to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a proposal outlining a compromise deal for Britain is finally on the table.
After months of work behind the scenes, discussion has accelerated over the past few days.
The prime minister’s unplanned visit to Brussels on Friday, where he met the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and his European Parliament counterpart, Martin Schulz, took most Brussels watchers by surprise. The trip was swiftly followed by European Council president Donald Tusk’s meeting with the prime minister in Downing Street on Sunday.
The reason for the haste is clear. For once, the interests of Britain and the EU are aligned: all parties want a deal as quickly as possible.
On the British side, Cameron favours a June referendum as he tries to capitalise on the relatively disjointed “leave” camp, which has so far failed to mount a cohesive campaign. An early referendum is also supported by virtually all the other 27 EU leaders.
With the EU facing huge challenges, leaders are keen to deal with the British issue swiftly. In particular, the magnitude of the refugee crisis and the risk that the revival of debates about free movement, relocation quotas and immigration could suit the agenda of “out” campaigners, is pushing leaders to go for an early deal.
In this regard, the mood in Brussels has shifted substantially since the referendum was first mooted. While, three years ago, EU diplomats openly dismissed Britain’s demand for special treatment as just another example of British exceptionalism, now there is an undeniable will to offer Cameron a compromise and something he can sell to his people.
One reason for this shift was Cameron’s decisive victory in last May’s general election. The election of a majority Tory government instantly turned something that had been a party political pledge into a reality, while also giving Cameron political legitimacy for a referendum.
Secondly, there has been a growing realisation across the bloc that the EU can ill afford to lose Britain. With the EU facing unprecedented challenges – symbolised most profoundly by the reintroduction of borders within the Schengen area – leaders worry now that a British exit would spell doom for the union.
That said, leaders will not bow to Britain’s demands at any cost and the deal on offer is already some distance from what Cameron initially demanded.
The next two and a half weeks will see a flurry of negotiations, both at diplomatic and technical level.
In the first instance, EU ambassadors and the 27 so-called “sherpas” – the senior officials who steer their governments’ EU policy from national capitals – will begin to pore over the draft document on a deal this week.
Particular attention will be focused on the “emergency brake”, the compromise measure proposed by the European Commission to break the deadlock over the migrants’ benefits issue.
The proposal, modelled to some extent on Article 14.2 of the EU and Switzerland’s free movement agreement, which allows Switzerland to take appropriate measures on immigration in the event of “serious economic or social difficulties”, would give Britain some power to limit welfare benefits to migrants if British social services were under strain.
But, as shown by the ongoing difficulties between Switzerland and the EU as they try to reach a compromise following the 2014 Swiss referendum vote in favour of immigration quotas, agreeing how such a deal would work in practice will be highly complex.
Questions that need to be clarified in the coming weeks include the following: who decides when the emergency brake is triggered? Can the curb on migrants’ benefits be triggered immediately, as requested by Britain? And how long can the “brake” last (Britain is understood to be pushing for a seven-year term).
Britain’s proposed safeguards for non-euro zone countries are also far from being agreed, with France and the European Central Bank among those most concerned about any moves that could jeopardise the stability or the competitiveness of the single currency.
With another round of high-level diplomacy scheduled before the next EU summit on February 18th and 19th – Cameron is due to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel on February 12th in Hamburg – there is still all to play for as the EU approaches the final stretch in its negotiations with Britain.
After that point, it will fall to the British people to decide whether to stick with the union their country joined 43 years ago.