24th Mar 2018

Member states gain time in UK talks

  • Cameron (l) and Merkel (r) said treaty change could be agreed in February. (Photo: Consillium)

Britain and its EU partners survived what European Council president Donald Tusk called a "make-or-break moment" in the thorny process of Britain's renegotiation of its EU membership.

But no clear roadmap towards a deal came out of the discussion between EU leaders on Thursday night (17 December).

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In a paragraph added to the conclusion of the EU summit, leaders simply said they "agreed to work closely together to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all the four areas at the European Council meeting on 18-19 February 2016."

The four areas in which Britains seeks reforms are economic governance; competitiveness; sovereignty; and immigration.

The formula left open the possibility of a limited treaty change in the future.

"The good news is there is a pathway to an agreement," British prime minister David Cameron said at a press conference.

"But the truth is this: it will be very hard work," he added. "We're attempting something very difficult that hasn't been tried by another country."

Leaders from all sides appeared to be careful not to jeopardise the process of the negotiations and chose to give more time before really deciding in which direction to go for an agreement.

"They sort of gave a green light to the experts to explore all options," an EU official told EUobserver, suggesting some time will be needed to define the main lines of a future agreement.

"I think you should not expect a document until very shortly before the February summit," the source said.

As a consequence, there was no breakthrough on the issue which is considered as the most difficult: the four year ban on benefits for EU citizens in the UK.

The proposal "remains on the table," Cameron said.

The British PM inisted that the European Commission, which has been tasked to work on a deal proposal with the UK, "believes there is a solution".

But a majority of member states remain opposed to the proposal, which would, some say, introduce discrimination between EU citizens.

"We have to be tough when it comes to some red lines," Tusk warned. He added that "no one, including Cameron, is ready to accept discrimination."

His remark was echoed by German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande, who both made clear that a deal would have to respect the principles of the EU.

Cameron also reminded that for him, "what matters is that change is legally binding and irreversible."

"That was discussed, and there is a good way through that," he said

In her press conference, Merkel confirmed that "what emerged clearly is that we need treaty change."

"That might be possible but that might happen later," she said. "We have to pave way for successors to be able to go on and further develop what we decide today."

A solution on that matter could be what a EU source called the "Edinburgh solution", refering to an agreement at an EU summit in the Scottish capital in 1992, when Denmark was granted exemptions in several fields so that it could ratify the Maastricht treaty and stay in the Union.

A promise could be made to the UK that a change would be introduced when the EU treaty needs to be amended, for example when a new country next enters the EU.

It would not be a full treaty change requiring an intergovernemental conference and ratification process, but it might give satisfaction to the UK.

The discussion over a dinner of chicken, venison, and marinated oranges was "frank and open," Hollande said, using the diplomatic formula for a lively debate.

"It was a very substantial discussion, going into real detail of all the areas that I put forward," Cameron said.

Cameron "reiterated the openness to alternative solutions only if they could achieve the same objective," Tusk said.

As for the other leaders, Tusk added, they "voiced their concerns, but also demonstrated willingness to look for compromises."

Apart from the so-called "fourth basket" - the immigration item on the British list if reforms, which includes benefits cuts - concerns were raised about the role of national parliaments in EU law-making, and about relations between eurozone and non-eurozone countries.

"I'd like to warn you against the illusory impression that there are three easy questions and one tricky one," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters.

"There are four tricky questions. Each one covers further questions on which we'll have to back until February," he said.

UK talks: Cameron 'will have to face reality'

The British prime minister is to present his demands for EU reforms to the other leaders. Cuts in benefits for EU citizens and treaty change will face strong opposition.

Tusk: UK reform talks are 'difficult'

The European Council president said there is "no consensus" on British demands to cut benefits for EU citizens and urged EU leaders to find a compromise before February.

EU aims for UK deal in February

In December, EU leaders will hold initial talks. In February, they'll try to agree on reforms to keep Britain in the EU. "It will be all about the details."

Eurosceptic MPs put Cameron under pressure

Conservative MPs have asked Cameron to let them campaign for an Out vote, with a former British defence minister saying the UK should leave the union.

Cameron asks Germans to help keep Britain in EU

The British prime minister appeals to Germans to help achieve his proposed changes to the European Union that would help keep Britain in the bloc, and said he is not challenging the freedom of movement.

British ministers can campaign for EU exit

Prime minister David Cameron said eurosceptic cabinet members will be freed from collective responsibility, and that he would not resign if defeated at the EU referendum.

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