- EU commission chief `quite confident' of Brussels compromise
- Social benefits loom as main sticking point for easterners
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said an accord to keep Britain in the European Union is within reach, leaving U.K. voters to decide whether to stay or go in a referendum as early as June.
“I’m quite confident that we will have a deal,” Juncker told reporters in Brussels on Thursday before an EU summit to settle the British question. He said “there is still a lot to discuss on some points.”
Britain’s insistence on the power to curtail social benefits for workers from other EU countries looms as one of the most controversial points, with eastern European leaders likely to drive a hard bargain at the summit. Even so, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told lawmakers in Bratislava that “a compromise is looming.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to finish off months of negotiations on new EU membership terms at the two-day summit. Since winning re-election last May, Cameron has held at least two face-to-face meetings with every other EU leader. He’s visited 20 of the 27 other member states, including two that hadn’t had a visit from a British prime minister in six decades and one -- Slovenia -- that had never seen one.
Arriving for the summit, Cameron said the negotiation was going to be hard. “If we can get a good deal I’ll take that deal, but I will not take a deal that doesn’t meet what we need,” he said. “It’s much more important to get this right than to do anything in a rush. But with good will, with hard work, we can get a better deal for Britain.”
A deal now would let Cameron call his promised referendum for June 23, giving those in favor of an unprecedented British exit from the EU the shortest possible time to campaign. But first, he needs agreement at the summit.
Late on Wednesday, EU President Donald Tusk warned that this wasn’t a certainty. “There is still no guarantee that we will reach an agreement,” Tusk wrote in an invitation letter to leaders posted on the EU Council website. “We differ on some political issues and I am fully aware that it will be difficult to overcome them.”
Uncertainty over the prospect of the U.K. leaving the EU, a so-called Brexit, is already rippling through markets and unsettling businesses. A gauge of the pound’s volatility against the euro jumped Thursday to the highest level since 2011. Sterling has weakened against all of its Group of 10 peers since the start of the year amid concern a vote to leave the world’s largest trading bloc may spark a business exodus from the U.K. and cramp economic growth.
Pacific Investment Management Co. said that “uncertainty over the result is likely to weigh on U.K. markets for a good few months yet.” It assigned a probability of as much as 40 percent to a Brexit.
Polling on the outcome of the referendum has been inconclusive. While most telephone polls -- like one by Ipsos Mori released on Wednesday -- have shown leads for staying in of more than 10 percentage points, more frequent online surveys have shown the “Leave” camp ahead at times. An ICM online poll also published Wednesday put “Remain” ahead by 43 percent to 39 percent, but with 18 percent of voters still undecided.
After meeting with their political parties in the early afternoon, government heads will begin the first summit session at 5:45 p.m. in the Belgian capital, where they’ll discuss the EU proposal for the U.K. Over an 8 p.m. working dinner they’ll tackle the refugee crisis, after which they could continue working through the evening or call it a night before taking up negotiations again Friday morning.
According to British and European officials speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are private, there are three main areas of disagreement. First, whether EU treaties will be changed to enshrine the concessions that Cameron has secured. Second, the precise way in which countries such as the U.K. that don’t use the euro will be able to raise concerns about decisions made by euro-area countries.
And finally, there’s the U.K.’s effort to restrict welfare payments to migrants from elsewhere in the EU. Eastern European countries, whose citizens make up most of these migrants, are concerned that other member nations might be allowed to bring in similar restrictions. They are also arguing that these should only apply to new immigrants, and not to those already in the U.K.
“I think there will be a tough discussion during the night but in the end I think there’ll be a compromise,” Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipila said in an interview in Brussels before the summit. “We can do it.”
Cameron will meet Tusk on arrival. Over dinner, the premier will present the positive side of British engagement with the EU, offering to deploy two Border Force vessels along with possible helicopter support and police liaison teams in an effort to stem the number of migrants arriving in the EU by boat.
Tusk then plans to meet different EU leaders individually through the night, and Cameron may hold his own meetings, according to one of the officials. The goal is to reach a final deal when the leaders all reconvene on Friday morning. On his ideal timing, Cameron would announce a deal in Brussels around midday, fly back to London, where he would chair a cabinet meeting to secure the support of as many of his ministers as possible, and then stand outside his 10 Downing Street office to announce the referendum in the early evening.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her political muscle behind the push for a deal. “We Europeans are called upon to do our level best to enable the British government to marshal convincing arguments for the U.K. to stay in the European Union,” Merkel said during a speech to the lower house of parliament in Berlin. “Many points here are about wishes which are understandable and that one is entitled to.”