Europe’s migration crisis is helping Britain’s campaign to curb or regulate freedom of movement within Europe as it tries to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership, the foreign secretary has said.
Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday evening in the midst of two days of talks on the referendum campaign, Philip Hammond signalled that resistance in eastern Europe, especially to migration from the Middle East, was making it easier for London to make its case against freedom of movement within the union, since most recent EU immigrants to Britain are from the newer member states in the east.
Hammond’s remarks came as four eastern countries were outvoted in a crucial decision to impose refugee quotas across the EU for the first time and share 120,000 arrivals between member states.
“Interestingly, some of the countries, as we have seen today, who have the most robust views on the external migration agenda, have been the ones also with the very strong views around no change to freedom of movement internally,” said Hammond.
“The migration crisis has thrown into stark relief some of the issues that the European Union has to deal with, some of the questions we have to address. That plays directly into some of the issues that we are raising in our renegotiation proposition.”
Hammond is in Brussels to see European commission officials and MEPs, including the parliament president, Martin Schulz. Hammond made clear the UK was not in any hurry to conclude the negotiations, despite frustration elsewhere in the EU at the vagueness of David Cameron’s demands. The prime minister is to discuss Britain’s demands for a new deal with Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, in Brussels on Thursday.
Cameron stepped up his efforts to woo key EU players on his plans for the union when he held private talks on Tuesday night with the French president, François Hollande, probably the senior European politician most hostile to the UK proposals.
French government sources are said to be looking for greater precision on what the UK wants from renegotiation before an in/out referendum due to be held before 2017. Cameron is likely to avoid revealing details of his plans before the Conservative conference in a fortnight as he continues to gauge the private reaction of EU leaders. His aides suggested Cameron would disclose more of his plans nearer to the time of the European heads of government summit in December.
Cameron is eager to ensure the conference is not taken up with speculation about the referendum date or battles between pro- and anti-Europeans. He has already announced the Conservative party will adopt a position of neutrality in the referendum itself, but that leaves undecided the issue of the government stance, including whether ministers will be allowed to remain in post during the referendum if they wish to oppose continued British membership of the EU.
Hollande’s dinner and overnight stay at Chequers was also due to cover a strategy for Syria in light of growing signs that the president, Bashar al-Assad, is being shored up by additional military help from Russia and Iran. Hollande has said in principle he is willing to join the US bombing campaign against Islamic State in northern Syria, but Cameron is waiting to see how opinion develops in the Labour party in the wake of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The US bombing campaign has been under way for exactly a year, and there is a widespread view that it is having little impact in Syria, even if it has contained Isis in Iraq.
Speaking in Brussels, Hammond admitted that freedom of movement and social benefits for EU citizens in Britain were the most difficult part of the British agenda to sell. Given that Poland supplies the bulk of new EU citizens living and working in Britain, the foreign secretary said no serious negotiations would get under way until after a new government is installed in Warsaw following elections on 25 October.
In Brussels the timetable is said to be that Tusk will outline a proposed deal to keep Britain in the EU at the December summit. But Hammond stated that this was premature.
“The really serious negotiations will take place in 2016,” he said, adding that the December summit would only mark the start of that process.
Despite the impatience of EU partners to get a more detailed idea of Cameron’s wish list, Hammond indicated that the government was still engaged in a fishing expedition, exploring ideas for change with EU governments to gauge where it might press its demands more productively.
“It’s not a question of having a hard and fast set of demands,” he said. “There’s no point in going charging in with a fixed and firm agenda.”
Hammond said the negotiations could drag on until next summer and that the prime minister would not set the date for the referendum until a package of reforms had been agreed. If the issue was settled, the referendum would follow four months later.
This article was written by Ian Traynor in Brussels and Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd September 2015 22.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010