Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Cameron faces 'crunch time' in Brussels and London

  • Cameron (c) cited "time constraints" to avoid Farage and Le Pen (Photo: consillium.europa.eu)

British PM David Cameron is holding final pre-summit talks in Brussels on Tuesday (16 January) before confronting his own anti-EU ministers on Friday.

The UK leader will meet with European Parliament chief Martin Schulz and with the “sherpas” or head negotiators of the three main political groups.

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  • Tusk (l) and Iohannis: Tusk's list of "outstanding issues" covered almost all UK demands (Photo: consillium.europa.eu)

Veteran German MEP Elmar Brok is representing the centre-right EPP group. Italian socialist Roberto Gualtieri is speaking for the centre-left S&D, while a former Belgian PM, Guy Verhofstadt, will speak for the liberal Alde faction.

Cameron will also meet European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

But he ducked out of a full-scale meeting of EU parliament group leaders.

His office cited “time constraints”, but EP sources said he wanted to avoid a clash with one of his popular antagonists - Nigel Farage, the British head of the eurosceptic EFDD group. He also wanted to avoid Marine Le Pen, the French head of the far-right ENF faction.

The EU assembly has no direct role in the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms.

But it must ratify new provisions on EU workers’ rights and could embarrass the British PM by tabling amendments to any UK deal on welfare.

Cameron, who has been touring European capitals, also met French leader Francois Hollande in Paris for one hour on Monday.

A British spokesman said the talks yielded “a firm basis to reach agreement”.

A French official told the Reuters news agency: “There’s still work to be done, especially on economic governance.”

The comments refer to British demands to protect the City of London from financial decisions by the 19 euro-using EU states, which are heading toward deeper integration.

Meanwhile, EU Council chief Donald Tusk, also on Monday, continued his own UK referendum confessionals.

He said after meeting Romanian president Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest that “positions harden, as we get closer to crunch time”.

“The risk of [an EU] break-up is real."

Child benefit

Cameron is close to winning Polish support on welfare curbs, amid haggling on whether to index child benefit payments to British or local EU wage levels.

Juncker said on Monday: “I do think that these social welfare benefits have to continue to be applied to those already in Britain. For the incoming workers, this has to be seen. The indexation of the child benefit will be at the core of the discussions.”

Tusk’s list of “outstanding political issues” extended to almost all British demands.

“These include the questions of future treaty change, a so-called emergency brake for non-euro area countries, a safeguard mechanism on access to in-work benefits, and finally the notion of ever-closer union,” Tusk said.

The “crunch time,” in EU terms, will come when European leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

If it goes well, Cameron is expected to call the In/Out referendum in late June and to campaign for the UK to stay in.

'Gutless' jibe

But he’ll face a second crunch when he gets back to London on Friday for a post-summit cabinet briefing.

Five of his ministers - Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers, and John Whittingdale - are hardened eurosceptics who aim to start immediately campaigning for an Out vote.

Other big personalities - home secretary Theresa May, justice minister Michael Gove, and London mayor Boris Johnson - are said to be on the fence.

Farage described Cameron’s decision to skip him as “gutless”.

The latest poll, by ComRes for ITV News, says 49 percent of British people will vote to stay in, but 41 percent want out.

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