Downing Street has hit back at anti-EU campaigners who have described David Cameron’s negotiations as a joke, with No 10 saying the prime minister was working to achieve “significant, far-reaching reforms”.
Welcoming progress in the talks over the weekend, No 10 denied Cameron was staging a confrontation with EU leaders before delivering a deal at a summit later this month.
“I wouldn’t accept that at all,” the prime minister’s spokeswoman said in response to criticisms from the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaign groups. “Look at the amount of hard work, time and effort that the prime minister, other senior ministers and indeed senior government officials have had put into this and into making progress. Look at the work we have had to do with a number of other European countries that have raised concerns. These are significant, far-reaching reforms. That is why it is taking time.”
Downing Street spoke out as Donald Tusk, the European council president, who met Cameron over dinner on Sunday night to reach an agreement, prepares to outline a proposed deal in a letter to EU leaders. The letter will be sent on Tuesday if Tusk believes that a deal is possible at the next EU summit on 18-19 February.
A deal has to be reached by the summit or at a special extra summit, which must be held no later than early March, if Downing Street is to be able to call an EU referendum by the preferred date of 23 June.
The prime minister was encouraged when Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, agreed at a meeting in Brussels on Friday that an emergency brake could be imposed to limit benefit payments to EU migrants as soon as a referendum is passed. It is understood that a mechanism proposed by Juncker, which would be set out in the Tusk letter, says that the current levels of migration to the UK would justify the application of the brake.
But Downing Street says the emergency brake would have to be as effective as the prime minister’s original proposal of a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits.
Steve Baker, the Tory MP for Wycombe, who is a leading member of the Vote Leave group, has described the brake as a sick joke amid claims that it would be lifted after four years. The prime minister is understood to be pressing for restrictions on benefits to be applied for seven years.
Cameron’s spokeswoman said: “The discussions are ongoing. The prime minister is making very clear that, as he has said throughout, any alternative to four years has to be equally as effective.”
Downing Street played down speculation that 60% of the prime minister’s demands in his EU negotiations had been met. But progress has been made on his call for a new initiative to boost EU competitiveness, for Britain to be given an opt-out from the EU’s historic commitment to create an “ever closer union” and for national parliaments to be allowed to club together to block EU legislation.
No 10 indicated that more work was needed on George Osborne’s demands for non-eurozone countries to be given protections from rules drawn up for the single market.
Downing Street says the UK was looking for a watertight “enforcement mechanism”, though not a veto, to allow non-eurozone members to flag up concerns. This could involve contentious legislation being referred to EU leaders on the European council. France is nervous because no member state has a veto over the rules of the single market while each EU leader has a veto on the European council.
More work was also needed to stop non-EU citizens getting access to Britain through “sham marriages”. Non-EU citizens who marry a UK citizen have no automatic right to settle in the UK. But if they marry a citizen of another EU country they can move to the UK under the EU’s rules on free movement.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “We have been clear throughout that this isn’t about the UK being able to veto further eurozone integration. It is about having clear principles and a way to enforce them.”
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “On the issue of sham marriages this is to do with abuse of free movement rights. It is about third-country nationals that then may find ways to use EU free movement rights to exploit loopholes. This is an area where we want to secure progress and see the EU taking action to address some of this.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st February 2016 14.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010