The scale of the challenge facing David Cameron at this week’s crucial summit to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU became clear as four eastern European countries rejected proposals to curtail benefits for migrant workers.
Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and European council president in charge of brokering the deal, said EU leaders would have to go an “extra mile” to reach agreement. Tusk spoke out after Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Czech Republic reached a common position on Tuesday rejecting current proposals on curbing child benefits for their migrant workers in western Europe, a key demand in Cameron’s campaign.
“The issue of access to social benefits continues to be among the most sensitive,” Tusk said after seeing the Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, who chaired a mini-summit of the four countries, known as the Visegrad-4, in Prague on Monday.
“The position of V4 is very clear. In view of that, I have no doubts: there is an extra mile we will have to walk to reach an agreement.”
The unease in eastern Europe came during a day of mixed blessings for Cameron who will spend Wednesday, the eve of the summit, in Downing Street, where he will hold a final round of telephone calls with EU leaders before travelling to Brussels.
The prime minister appeared to have won the support of Prince William to keep Britain in a reformed EU. The Duke of Cambridge said Britain’s ability to work with other nations was the “bedrock of our security and prosperity”. But the speech at an awards ceremony for British diplomats at a Foreign Office awards ceremony caught senior Downing Street figures by surprise – suggesting the speech was not a re-run of the Queen’s intervention on the eve of the Scottish referendum when she asked voters to “think very carefully about the future”.
Germany and France are on board to reach a deal with Cameron on Thursday evening, suggesting a broader agreement can be achieved. This would enable the prime minister to return from Brussels on Friday and call the referendum for June.
But the likely broad arrangement is laced with uncertainties in the finer detail, which will be picked over in the weeks ahead. Cameron’s insistence that the settlement terms must be immediately seen to be legally watertight and irreversible suffered a setback when the head of the European parliament said he could not guarantee that.
The parliament will have to approve secondary legislation on the most controversial aspects of the proposed deal – the restrictions on child benefit, the emergency brake to limit in-work benefits and the protections for EU members outside the eurozone. Cameron’s rush to Brussels reflected worries that the chamber could be a loose cannon in the delicate renegotiation since changes in EU law to accommodate key UK demands on welfare curbs for EU immigrants will need to go through the parliament.
It would be highly unusual for the parliament to veto decisions taken by the EU’s 28 heads of government. But the chamber’s role almost certainly means that Cameron will only be able to put the welfare changes into effect much later than he hoped and well after Britons have actually voted in the referendum.
Cameron, who has said that any deal agreed with fellow EU leaders would be legally binding, sought assurances that the chamber would wave through the legal changes – a promise that the parliament’s president, Martin Schulz, withheld. Schulz stressed that the parliament would not veto decisions taken by EU leaders. He described the talks with Cameron as constructive but he emphasised the centrality of parliamentary process.
The British pressed for the parliament to issue a declaration this week stating that it would abide by the decisions taken by the summit. It will not do this because it has to wait for the European commission to table detailed legislative changes that it then scrutinises before it can reach a verdict. The commission proposals can only be tabled once the result of the UK referendum is known.
Once the commission’s legal texts are on the table, the parliament would move quickly to expedite the legislative process, Schulz promised, but he added: “I can’t give a guarantee for the future of a legislation. No government can go to a parliament and say ‘here is our proposal, can you guarantee a result’. This is, in a democracy, not possible.”
Downing Street insisted that the prime minister was encouraged by his meetings with Schulz, three senior MEPs who are representing the parliament in negotiations with the UK and the leaders of the three main pan-European groupings. They are Gianni Pittella, chair of a Socialists and Democrats alliance, Manfred Weber, chair of the European People’s party, and the Tory MEP Syed Kamall, chair of the European Conservatives and Reformist group.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “All three made clear their support for the proposals on the table and said they were ready to take any necessary EU legislation through the European parliament swiftly.”
The issue of child benefits and changes to social security systems also dominated talks in Brussels between Cameron and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission. The prime minister spoke to his Czech counterpart Sobotka by phone. “Both agreed that further discussions are necessary to pin down all the details,” said a Downing Street spokesperson.
Juncker, who has warned that the changes could affect national social security systems across the EU, insisted that the commission had no “Plan B” prepared for the UK issue in the event that the summit broke down.
The eastern European countries are insisting that cutting child benefits for migrant EU workers in Britain who leave their offspring at home can only be applied to new cases and not to people already in the UK. They want to limit the changes to the UK and resist applying the new system replicated uniformly across the EU.
The diplomatic manoeuvrings came amid continuing confusion among Leave campaigners. The cross-party Grassroots Out group, funded by the Ukip donor Arron Banks, announced it would join forces with Leave.EU group and Ukip to seek formal status from the Electoral Commission as the main Leave campaign. But it suffered a blow when the Democratic Unionist party challenged its claim to have signed up the East Antrim MP and DUP stalwart Sammy Wilson.
The rival Vote Leave group, which hopes to win the official status as the main leave group with a campaign focused on a vision of a rejuvenated Britain on the world stage, released a letter signed by 80 community and business leaders with ties to the Commonwealth who endorsed a UK exit.
The letter, whose signatories include the president of the UK Bangladesh Caterers Association, Pasha Khandaker, says: “Our immigration policy forces us, in effect, to turn away qualified workers from the Commonwealth so as to free up unlimited space for migrants from the EU. The descendants of the men who volunteered to fight for Britain in two world wars must stand aside in favour of people with no connection to the United Kingdom. This renegotiation offered Britain the chance to regain its autonomy in the fields of migration and commerce.”
A poll by Lord Ashcroft, published in the Sun on Wednesday, of 28,720 people across all 28 EU member states has found that 60% are keen for the Britain to stay in the union, while just one in 10 want Britain to leave.
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