David Cameron has scrapped a visit to Denmark and Sweden as he tries to inject fresh momentum into his EU negotiations with unscheduled talks with the European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
As Whitehall fears the chances of a deal at the European council in mid-February are slipping, the prime minister will on Friday seek to persuade Juncker to allay the concerns of some of the smaller EU member states.
Downing Street is hoping that the renewed momentum will ensure that Donald Tusk, the European council president, is able to send out his latest proposals on the UK’s EU reform package next week to all EU leaders.
There are concerns in Whitehall that Tusk, who is leading the negotiations, may feel there has been insufficient progress in the talks among “sherpas” – EU and UK officials – to allow him to set out his latest thoughts in writing. Worries have been expressed that some EU leaders are saying there is not enough time for them to prepare their own domestic audiences for the changes before the summit on 18 and 19 February. A delay could mean that Tusk would have to call a second special summit late in February to reach a deal, allowing the prime minister to hold the referendum in June.
Juncker, who has a seat on the council, has two roles in the negotiation. As commission president, he is guardian of the EU treaties and will advise if proposed changes contravene EU law. As one of the most senior figures in the EU he can also lobby other EU leaders.
British sources say a proposal for an emergency brake that would allow EU member states to request that the number of EU migrants is slowed down if public services face too much pressure is “in the mix”. Whitehall sources suggested earlier this month that this was being seen in Downing Street as a “rabbit out of the hat” that could trump the prime minister’s proposed four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits. But Britain may struggle to shape the proposal in a way that would allow the prime minister to say he has a mechanism to bring down EU migration.
The prime minister’s decision to make an unscheduled visit to Brussels came as Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, warned that the EU would be a more dangerous place if the UK voted to leave. Bildt told BBC Newsnight: “We are living in a more dangerous world. That means friends must stay together. If you suddenly see a Europe that starts to fracture with a significant country leaving, that is going to be a weaker Europe – and in my opinion a more dangerous Europe for everyone.”
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