David Cameron bowed to pressure from other EU governments on Thursday and pledged to put his shopping list of demands for his in/out EU referendum on paper within weeks after previously declining to do so.
The prime minister is to write a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European council who chairs EU summits, detailing the changes he hopes to obtain in the EU, before putting the outcome to a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether the UK should remain in the EU.
Cameron has previously refused to be pinned down on his demands, triggering a chorus of complaints over the past fortnight from EU capitals that the negotiations were going nowhere and that there would be no meaningful talks until Downing Street put something on paper.
The letter is to be sent in November so that the other 27 governments of the EU are able to consider it ahead of another EU summit in December which is expected to tackle the British question more substantively.
The sudden shift by the prime minister in the wake of a volley of criticism of his tactics from EU capitals suggested that for the first time in what is expected to be very fractious negotiations, the Europeans and not the British were dictating the terms of the process.
Cameron’s emphasis on accelerating the negotiations also raised the likelihood of a quicker breakthrough clearing the way to a possible referendum in less than a year, perhaps by next September or earlier. There was even talk in Brussels of the British package that will form the basis for the vote being finalised before Christmas.
At a summit on Europe’s refugee crisis on Thursday evening, Cameron was given merely “a few minutes” to make his pitch on Britain’s position on the EU.
The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said recently in Brussels that the UK would not be pressured into tabling detailed demands. But, criticised for the slow pace of the UK-EU negotiations which kicked off in July, and for the vagueness of the British position, Cameron promptly performed a U-turn.
“The pace will now quicken,” he said. “I’ll be again setting out the four vital areas where we need change, laying down what those changes will be at the start of November.”
The detail, said Downing Street sources, will come in a letter to Tusk which will be circulated to the other EU governments. Cameron had been warned that there would be no proper negotiations in December unless he gave the rest of the EU four weeks to consider the UK demands.
The letter, said British officials, “will lay down the changes for a fuller and more detailed discussion with the [EU] member states”.
In Brussels on Thursday, Cameron met separately with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, François Hollande, but the UK issue was peripheral to a discussion which focused on policy on Syria, diplomatic sources said. Earlier, in the German parliament, Merkel said she wanted to strike a deal with Cameron, but stipulated there were no-go areas on freedom of movement or labour migration within the EU and on non-discrimination, meaning that Cameron would not be able to curb in-work benefits for EU citizens in the UK.
Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, said he expected Cameron to “explain and detail” his position, voicing bemusement that this had not happened already. “I asked for information a long time ago. I still haven’t received anything,” he said. “I hope to get something tonight.”
Cameron also had a 90-minute lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission in which discussion focused on the referendum negotiations. Over seafood, the two leaders had “useful and constructive” talks, British sources said.
It is not clear whether the letter to Tusk will go into more detail on Cameron’s requirements than is already known. But there would be little point in writing the letter unless it went further. Three weeks ago, Hammond said there was no point in having a “hard and fast agenda” in the negotiations.
Cameron has been reluctant to put anything down on paper for his EU interlocutors, for fear the document would quickly leak and leave him hostage to Eurosceptic critics attacking his demands as inadequate.
But British officials said the new letter would be made public and circulated to MPs at Westminster.
Cameron also discussed the negotiations with Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament and a German social democrat who also voiced exasperation with the lack of clarity on the British position.
“The UK government raised the problem of the referendum,” Schulz said. “It is up to the Cameron government to make proposals. It is not up to us.”
Despite the apparent Downing Street U-turn, there was no mention of when the negotiations might be concluded, nor when the referendum could be held.
“We’re not setting a specific timetable for what when,” said Downing Street.
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