David Cameron is to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership without a guarantee that the EU’s other 27 member states will have ratified his proposed reforms by the time of the vote, British officials have acknowledged.
Labour and Ukip accused the prime minister of planning to offer the British people a “post-dated cheque”, after UK officials confirmed in Brussels that the referendum will be held before his proposed EU treaty change has been fully ratified.
The row broke out at the EU summit in Brussels shortly before Cameron briefly outlined his reform plans for the first time in the formal setting of an EU summit. One EU diplomat described the prime minister’s intervention as “a commercial break”. The diplomat said: “There was a very emotional discussion on migration, and David Cameron gave us a commercial break.”
The prime minister’s intervention lasted between eight and 10 minutes, and there were no responses from any of the other 27 EU heads of government. The president of the European council, Donald Tusk – who was chairing the summit – was the only person in the room who responded to Cameron.
The prime minister, who spoke to or briefed every EU leader in person before the summit, told his fellow EU leaders there has been widespread unease for many years in the UK over EU membership, and that he is determined to address the issue.
Cameron insisted that he must achieve his reforms ahead of an in/out referendum, which will have to be held by the end of 2017. The reforms break down into four core areas:
• Banning EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits for four years.
• A British opt-out from the EU’s historic commitment, dating back to the founding treaty of Rome in 1957, to create an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe.
• The creation of safeguards for non-eurozone members to ensure they cannot be outvoted in the single market by eurozone members.
• Giving national parliaments the right to club together to block EU legislation.
But the prime minister’s intervention, which will trigger the start of technical talks involving UK officials and officials in Brussels, was overshadowed by a row over the guarantees he will secure by the time of the referendum. The BBC reported that the prime minister accepts that every EU member state will not have ratified his proposed revision of the Lisbon treaty by the time of his referendum.
Cameron nevertheless declared as he emerged from meetings on the Greek crisis and migration at 1am on Friday that he was “delighted” the process of renegotiating Britain’s place in the EU had begun. “It has been a long night and we have discussed some very important subjects, but above all I am delighted that the process of British reform and renegotiation and the referendum that we are going to hold – that process is now properly under way … we have started that process.”
The Guardian and other media organisations have reported in the past month that Britain may secure a binding agreement from other EU leaders to attach a protocol to the Lisbon treaty. But this would only be formally attached to the Lisbon treaty the next time it is ratified to embed wider EU reforms. Senior UK officials say that some member states have said they cannot be expected to amend the Lisbon treaty on behalf of the UK, only to see it vote to leave the EU.
A senior British official said that the prime minister is confident he will embed his reforms in a “legally binding and irreversible” process that will involve a revision of the Lisbon treaty. But the official said that the ratification of treaty change by all 28 member states, which can take years to complete, will not be completed by the time of Britain’s referendum.
The official said: “There will be political agreement [of] 27 that these changes will be done. Then there is a process of ratification of those which can take a long time because it needs to be ratified in all 27 countries.
“So there will be a process that will need to bring the changes to the treaties into force. But are we absolutely clear that the reforms we are seeking will require treaty change and will need agreement on that treaty change before the referendum? Yes, we absolutely are.”
Another official added: “Will it be crystal clear and binding at the point that goes to the British people? Yes it will.”
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said at the summit: “It sounds like a post-dated cheque. There are so many big fundamental things happening that a promissory note of some kind to Britain may well finish up not being honoured. Post-dated cheques can bounce and one suspects that any post-dated cheque that was given to the Brits would be given by presidents and prime ministers in office now.
“By the time it came to be honoured there would be different prime ministers and different presidents who have been elected on a ticket saying we won’t honour this note anyway. It doesn’t work on any way you look at it.”
Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “All year the prime minister has been saying that change to the treaty was a definite requirement and yet now, faced with entirely predictable opposition from other member states, he is signalling retreat while pretending that all he ever wanted was a post-dated cheque.”
The prime minister says he is confident that he will secure treaty change because changes to the governance of the eurozone will have to be embedded in the Lisbon treaty.
But the summit will discuss plans for strengthening the euro over the next decade which have been deliberately structured to postpone treaty change until after 2017 specifically because of the British issue, senior sources said.
The so-called Five Presidents report, from the leaders of the European commission, European Central Bank, European parliament, European council and Eurogroup, envisages a battery of integrationist moves up until 2025, some of which would require changes in primary EU law, but which are shelved for most of the decade.
“This is the idea of the two-phase approach,” said a senior German politician in Brussels. “To deal with the British question and then to reopen the treaty.”
Senior politicians and officials in Brussels are not too exercised about the “ever closer union” formula, which would not be scratched from the EU treaties but could come with a footnote or protocol signalling that not all countries are bound by it.
Top figures in Brussels point out that the current formulation on the “ever closer union of peoples” (not states) was wording actually won by a British Conservative prime minister John Major, during the Maastricht negotiations.
European leaders appear relaxed about this issue, but securing the kind of legal changes needed to facilitate Cameron’s aims on curbing in-work benefits for citizens of other EU countries working in Britain are seen as much trickier. Such changes would also be difficult to cover through what would effectively be a promissory note concerning post-referendum changes to labour and social legislation.
Farage, who appeared on the margins of the summit, waded into the row over the Queen’s speech at a state banquet in Berlin in which she warned of the dangers of division in Europe.
Her speech was seen as a sign that she favours UK membership of the EU, although Buckingham Palace insisted the Queen was not making any comments on Britain’s EU membership.
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