David Cameron is hoping to kick-start formal talks on reform of Britain’s membership of the European Union, as he addresses leaders of the 28-nation bloc at a summit in Brussels.
The Prime Minister wants the meeting to pave the way for the launch this summer of “technical” talks at official level on the UK’s concerns about sovereignty, immigration, economic competitiveness and protecting the interests of EU members which do not use the euro.
Since his re-election last month, Mr Cameron has spoken to most of his EU counterparts to set out his aim of renegotiating Britain’s membership ahead of a referendum by the end of 2017, but the European Council summit is the first time that the subject has been put formally on the agenda.
However, the PM may face a struggle to get fellow-leaders to engage with Britain’s worries at a gathering likely to be overshadowed by ongoing negotiations on the Greek debt crisis as well as talks on the surge in migrants entering Europe by boat across the Mediterranean.
An official schedule released in Brussels made clear that the UK’s demands will not be discussed in either of the working sessions of the two-day summit, which is likely to end early on Friday to make time for a separate meeting of eurozone leaders to discuss Greece.
Instead, over dinner on Thursday, the EU’s national leaders will “have the opportunity to listen to Prime Minister Cameron in regard to the upcoming referendum in United Kingdom and the reforms he is seeking”, the document said.
It was unclear whether the meeting will agree a formal process for talks, but Government officials said that the PM hopes to maintain the momentum established since his re-election. It is thought that UK officials will initially get involved in discussions with representatives of the Brussels institutions in a process which could take several months
Speaking before his departure for Brussels, Mr Cameron said: “This is my first European Council since the election and it’s the first EU summit where renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU is formally on the agenda.
“This presents an opportunity to get the negotiation under way and to kick off a process to work through the substance and to find solutions.
“It will take us another step closer to addressing the concerns that the British people have about the EU. And closer to changing the status quo for the better and then giving the British people a say on whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU.”
The European Commission has appointed a senior British official as director-general of a new Brussels taskforce to handle issues relating to the UK renegotiation and referendum, which will begin its work on September 1.
Lawyer Jonathan Faull will have responsibility for leading the Commission’s response to the UK demands and will report directly to its president Jean-Claude Juncker.
The Prime Minister has yet to produce a definitive final statement of the reforms he is seeking, but he has made clear they would include a ban on EU migrants claiming benefits for their first four years in the UK, a power to deport immigrants who fail to find a job within six months, a greater role for national parliaments in EU-level decisions and the removal of the requirement to sign up to “ever-closer union” in Europe. He believes that reform on the scale he is seeking will require treaty change.
Mr Cameron held talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel before attending a state banquet with the Queen in Berlin on Wednesday evening and was expected to have face-to-face meetings with other European counterparts in Brussels before the opening of the summit as he continues to seek allies in his reform agenda. It was unclear whether he will achieve his aim of speaking to all 27 of his counterparts before formal proceedings begin.
He was given an indication of the resistance he may encounter by French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who indicated his country would oppose any push for treaty change and suggested that Mr Cameron’s desire to reform freedom of movement rules could be “a problem” because the principle is part of the “European DNA”.
Mr Macron told the BBC on Wednesday: “I don’t understand how it’s possible to say ‘we, the UK, want to have all the positive reasons to be part of the club of 28 and the European passport and a great financial place for all the EU members, if we don’t want to share any risk with the other member states’. It doesn’t fly. It’s a common responsibility.”
But Government officials indicated that they do not expect any attempt to block the planned technical talks. “There’s been a sense of countries wanting to engage in this,” said one official.
Mr Cameron was also using the summit to push for progress on the creation of a digital single market in Europe, putting his name to a letter also signed by the leaders of Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic and Estonia backing proposals drawn up by the Commission last month to bring down barriers to online trade and shopping throughout the EU.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady warned Mr Cameron not to seek opt-outs from EU workplace rights, warning this would make a No vote on Britain’s membership more likely.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, Ms O’Grady said: “We believe that working people deserve some straight answers on the nature of the renegotiation.
“We respectfully request that you publicly confirm or deny that you are seeking to worsen existing rights and, at a time when casual employment such as zero-hours working is spreading across Europe, prevent the introduction of new ones that would protect workers against exploitation.”