Cameron Says Current EU Ideas to Keep U.K. in Bloc ‘Not Enough’

  • European Commission working on `emergency brake' mechanism
  • Premier met Juncker in Brussels before Sunday talks with Tusk

Prime Minister David Cameron said current proposals to keep the U.K. in the European Union aren’t good enough, as he embarked on a round of intensive diplomacy in the run-up to the Feb. 18-19 summit at which he’s seeking a deal.

“We’ve made some progress today, it’s not enough,” he told reporters in Brussels Friday after hastily arranged talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “I can’t be certain we’ll get there in February, but I’ll work as hard as I can to deliver a good deal for the British people.”

Cameron was discussing a commission proposal to satisfy his most contentious demand, on restricting welfare payments to non-British citizens. Under the plan, a so-called emergency brake would give EU nations the power to limit benefits to migrants if the government can prove exceptional circumstances.

The summit in three weeks’ time could be a make-or-break moment for the U.K.’s relationship with the rest of the 28-nation bloc. After pushing for EU reform for three years, Cameron is bidding for a deal in February that would enable him to hold a referendum on EU membership as early as June.

The commission was already working on its emergency brake solution at the time of last month’s summit, which failed to make sufficient progress to yield a deal for Cameron. While the mechanism would give the prime minister the opportunity to sell a victory on migration to the British people, it would fall some way short of his original demand for a wholesale ban for four years on in-work welfare payments to EU workers in the U.K.

‘Best Solution’

“The emergency brake is the best solution because it would allow not only the U.K. now, but also later on any other member state, to apply this brake when they face the same pressure the U.K. is facing now,” the Czech secretary of state for European affairs, Tomas Prouza, told BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” program. “My feeling is that this would be available to the U.K. as soon as the deal is struck, so if the agreement is done by the end of February, and there is a clear procedure, then the U.K. should be able to use it right away.”

The mechanism being discussed would take two or three months to implement once Britain requested it, the Czech official said.

Cameron may yet decide that it’s better to risk the compromise than wait more months for a more acceptable agreement, Mujtaba Rahman, London-based practice head Europe at the Eurasia Group, said in a note on Friday. Eurasia Group puts the chances of Britain voting to leave the EU, a so-called Brexit, at about 30 percent.

‘Visible Stresses’

“Despite visible stresses in the negotiations as deal-time approaches, all the major players retain a shared interest in meeting the deadline for a June referendum,” Rahman said. “All sides understand that a significant delay would also weaken Cameron’s position, risking higher-level defections among cabinet ministers who currently appear ready to back a reasonable deal.”

Still, Cameron told BBC Radio Scotland before traveling to Brussels that he’s ready to wait to get the right deal, as he doesn’t have to hold the referendum before the end of next year.

“The question with these brakes and ideas, it’s very important how they’re pulled, how long they last, how much strength they have,” he said. “In these sorts of negotiations, you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to wait for the right deal.”

Poll Lead

An opinion poll published on Friday suggested that exactly half of British voters would vote to stay in the EU while 38 percent want the U.K. to leave. The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Evening Standard, indicated that 58 percent have already decided how they would vote in a referendum. The 12-point gap is the narrowest in an Ipsos MORI survey since 2012 and compares with a 34-point lead for the “In” campaign in June, the newspaper said. The polling company asked 1,027 adults by telephone on Jan. 23-25.

While phone polls have shown consistent leads to stay in, more frequent online
polls have suggested the race is much closer.

As well as wanting to limit access to welfare for EU citizens in the U.K. in a bid to stem immigration, the prime minister is seeking to win agreement from fellow EU leaders to give protection to non-euro states, limit the commitment to “ever closer union” and strip away regulations that hamper competition.

Cameron’s EU negotiations will continue on Sunday evening when he hosts Donald Tusk, the EU President who represents the bloc’s 28 national leaders. The commission’s compromise text on migrant welfare payments will feed into a document that Tusk will circulate to leaders early next week and will form the template of a deal ahead of the Feb. 18-19 summit.

Before then, on Feb. 12, Cameron will continue his push for a deal when he speaks at a banquet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hamburg.

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