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5th Mar 2024

No issue in UK talks resolved yet, EU negotiator says

  • Faull: 'Political will to settle the issue is pretty strong' (Photo: europeanbusinesssummit)

A deal on EU reforms with Britain in February is possible but one should "not put money on it,” the European Commission’s chief negotiator said on Thursday (14 January).

Although "the political will to settle the issue is pretty strong" from all parties involved in the talks, "there are still difficult issues remaining to be resolved", Jonathan Faull told MEPs in Brussels on the constitutional affairs committee.

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Faull, a British former commisssion spokesman and director general for justice and home affairs and for financial services, was nominated last September to chair a commission Task Force for Strategic Issues related to the UK Referendum.

"I'm not a betting man and I'm not going to put money on it and I wouldn't encourage you to either," he said, when German centre-right MEP David McAllister asked him if he should bet on a deal at the EU summit on 18-19 February.

The summit will be "crucial,” Faull said. He noted that "we have not long to go" and said he expected the draft agreement, which will be put to the heads of state and government, would be issued "some time early in February".

By then, "the whole question will become a matter of public debate all across our member states", he said.

Fundamental principles

For now, Faull told MEPs, although "the discussions have been very serious with Britain", none of the four issues raised by British prime minister David Cameron "is today completely resolved".

The four "baskets" of British demands are over economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, and immigration.

Among the specific issues still unresolved, Faull mentioned the symbolic reference to "an ever closer union", the relationship between eurozone and non-eurozone countries, the free movement of workers and "the conditions in which workers are treated in member states".

Since talks started in the autumn, the main stumbling point has been the British demand that EU workers in the UK are banned from social benefits for four years.

"There are very difficult issues politically and legally in the UK and for the 27 other member states as well and for the legal system we seek to uphold at all times," Faull said.

"The question will be whether the current framework contains sufficient flexibility to deal with the issues raised, while maintaining the fundamental principles that within a single market, there are fundamental freedoms which have to remain intact," Faull told MEPs.

He also noted that these fundamental freedoms "are not unconditional ones", in so far as "the treaty and secondary legislation have laid down a whole series of rules which frame the circumstances in which not only persons and workers, but goods, capital and services, are the subject of the fundamental freedoms across the European Union".

Impact of referendum

EU leaders in December committed "to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all the four areas" at the February summit.

Today, "a range of possibilities" remains open, from "a simple declaratory statement, to references to legislative activity", or even treaty change, Faull said.

"Many issues can be settled without violating current treaties and without requiring any amendment to treaties," he said. The content of the deal "depends on leaders, what they think needs to be done and then we can all determine how best to do it".

Faced with a referendum on Britain's EU membership to be held after an agreement is reached, the commission negotiator said the EU was "not considering the impact of result" in the drafting of the deal.

"We'll see where we are when the referendum takes place," Faull said, adding that he would not be able to vote despite being a British citizen.

"I've lived abroad too long," he said.

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