Prime Minister David Cameron said he expects highs and lows in negotiations with his fellow European Union leaders as he tries to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the bloc before holding a vote on U.K. membership.
Cameron, fresh from securing a majority for his Conservative Party in the U.K. election two weeks ago, had his first face-to-face meetings with mainly eastern EU leaders on Friday at a summit in the Latvian capital, Riga. He’ll host EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at his countryside retreat, Chequers, on Monday, before traveling to Berlin and Paris later next week to make his case to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, according to a British official.
The summit is “an opportunity to start some of the discussions about reform of the EU,” Cameron said as he arrived at the meeting. “There will be ups and downs: you’ll hear one day this is possible and the next day something else is impossible.”
While the British premier made a referendum by the end of 2017 a red-line priority in the campaign, and his majority gives him a mandate to hold it, business leaders have warned of the risk of leaving the bloc and other EU governments have signaled they won’t make big changes to satisfy his demands.
Cameron’s plans were not part of the summit agenda and his discussions were conducted on the sidelines and in bilateral meetings with other leaders.
“There were no discussions; not in the plenary session or in side talks -- there were no talks about the U.K.,” Hollande told reporters as he left the summit. “This wasn’t the place or the time. If there will be talks it would in a bilateral meeting since I am welcoming Cameron on the 28th.”
Cameron approached EU leaders individually to speak about his intentions, according to one participant who declined to be further identified because the discussions were private. Cameron brought up issues including welfare payments to migrants and parliamentary sovereignty over certain legislation, such as taxation, the participant said.
Cameron met leaders of Poland, Sweden, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia and EU President Donald Tusk, the official said.
In a statement overnight, Cameron said the talks won’t be “easy” or “quick,” and that he expected “disagreements along the way.” He’s seeking changes to treaties and EU welfare reforms to curb immigration so that he can make the case to voters for Britain to remain a member.
The prime minister explained U.K. concerns on immigration and the direction of the EU towards closer union, according to the British official. Treaty changes could be done in different ways, including simple revisions and passing new protocols, the official said.
“One thing throughout all of this that will be constant, is my determination to deliver for the British people, reform of the EU, so they get a proper choice in the referendum that we’ll hold, an in/out referendum, before the end of 2017, that will be constant,” the prime minister said.
The British premier faced push-back against his goals, with Poland saying it will block any restrictions on labor mobility within the EU and Merkel skeptical of any major treaty change.
Cameron has indicated he’d like to hold the referendum earlier than 2017 if he makes progress in his discussions. Merkel’s coalition also would rather Cameron brought the vote forward to next year, and France sees it as in everyone’s interest that the referendum is held as soon as possible, according to an EU official. Even so, it’s not all about the U.K. and Europe won’t revolve around this one issue, the official said.