Cameron Cancels Nordic Trip to Meet Juncker for EU Talks

Updated on
  • Prime minister announces short-notice trip to Brussels Friday
  • Had been due to discuss renegotiation with Swedish, Danish PMs

David Cameron canceled visits to Sweden and Denmark planned for Friday in order to make a short-notice trip to Brussels to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as he seeks a deal on new European Union membership terms.

The sudden move suggests that the intensity of diplomacy is increasing ahead of the Feb. 18-19 summit at which Britain hopes to secure an agreement to keep it in the 28-member bloc. Keeping to that timetable is essential if Cameron is to call a stay-or-leave referendum in June.

The prime minister’s office announced the step in an e-mailed statement Wednesday just as he was starting his weekly question-and-answer session in Parliament in London. Officials denied it was a sign the negotiations are in trouble. Recent online polls of voting intentions have been inconclusive, and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned Tuesday that any talks to extract the U.K. from the EU after an unprecedented vote to leave might drag on for years.

“The prime minister is going to Brussels to talk about the substance of the renegotiation,” Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters. “Across Europe, we are seeing leaders -- whether in the institutions or other countries -- clear that they want to see a deal secured in February.”

Closing Stages

Cameron’s office said there had been a desire for a meeting on the U.K. side, and that a window had opened up in Juncker’s diary on Friday. It wouldn’t go into what the two men needed to talk about that they couldn’t discuss by phone.

As the prime minister reaches the closing stages of his renegotiation of Britain’s terms of EU membership, how he presents his actions to voters are as important as what he’s actually doing. He needs to be seen to be fighting hard to secure a good deal. 

Until now, much of the diplomacy has been conducted quietly as Cameron has sought to convince his fellow leaders. The U.K. only set out exactly what it wanted in November, after EU Council President Donald Tusk demanded it do so. Friday’s meeting with Juncker, who heads the EU’s bureaucracy, may mark the start of a more public phase of the negotiations.

Commission Role

“It’s the council president who’s responsible for chairing the discussions amongst the 28 member states, but in a range of areas this will also touch on the role and business of the European Commission,” Bower said, while refusing to say if the meeting with Juncker will include discussion of the commission’s role in drafting legislation. “There are different players with different roles, all of which are legitimate,” she said.

Cameron had been planning Friday meetings on the EU in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven and then in Copenhagen with Denmark’s Lars Lokke Rasmussen. He held talks in London Monday with Enda Kenny of Ireland and was in Prague last Friday for a visit to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

Next to no detail has been disclosed about the negotiations, though Sobotka said last week discussions were taking place on an “emergency brake” on migration into the U.K. That would be an alternative to Cameron’s demand that EU migrants be barred from receiving in-work welfare benefits for four years, the most controversial area of the renegotiation.

Bower said the prime minister remains confident of a deal. “The ambition is there,” she said. “There’s clearly more work to do. The prime minister has said many times that what matters most is that we get the substance right and fix the problems and concerns of the British people.”

Tusk is due in London Feb. 4 for an international meeting on Syria hosted by the U.K.

(Updates with comments from Cameron's spokeswoman starting in eighth paragraph.)
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