After weeks of touring European capitals to talk with EU leaders, David Cameron is ready to open negotiations on the UK’s membership of the EU at the European Council.
This will be the first time the 28 EU leaders will have the opportunity to discuss Cameron’s hope for renegotiation together. The meeting will be dominated by Greece and the Mediterranean refugee crisis. The EU needs to find solutions to these two problems as quickly as possible. Hence the initiation of Britain’s renegotiation is confined to informal discussions over dinner.
This is disappointing for eurosceptics within the Conservative Party, who were hoping for something more substantial. The event where the issue is to be discussed does not even feature on the official agenda of the two-day summit.
To the outsider it would appear that fate has intervened at the beginning of the renegotiation to overshadow Cameron’s demands. It might seem unfortunate that the leaders have to deal with the migrant crisis and the situation in Greece before they even get to the British question.
But, in reality, it’s quite normal for “pressing issues” such as these to dominate European Council summit meetings – in fact it is hard to find one in which this has not been the case. These are, after all, the leaders of a group of countries with a lot to talk about.
The sidelining of the renegotiation is actually more a reflection of Cameron’s view on his situation. He is signalling to other European leaders that there is not much to be learnt from the discussion. An informal dinner is all that it is worth.
If Cameron had something more substantial to say, it is likely the UK renegotiation would have greater prominence on the agenda. That would have scored him valuable points in both his party and the centre-right of the electorate. He hasn’t done it because he couldn’t.
The trouble is, he is unable to move onto the detail and will have to keep the discussion general. So far, we know that the broad goals are restricting access to in-work and out-of-work benefits for EU migrants, handing greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation, and reducing red-tape for businesses.
Cameron has refused to get specific on the list of UK demands beyond these themes, fearing that such a list could be used to measure his success or failure at this very summit.
We can infer from this lack of progress towards detail that Cameron has received a mixed reception at best to his current proposals during his month of meetings with his EU counterparts.
The most likely objection is over EU migration. Some countries, such as Poland, are fundamentally opposed to restricting welfare benefits for EU migrants. It has also become apparent to Number 10 that such restrictions almost certainly require Treaty change – and there is very little appetite for that in Brussels. Current thinking in both Berlin and Paris is that broader EU reforms can be achieved without Treaty change.
The low priority of the renegotiations at the summit therefore reflects David Cameron’s current difficulties. Curbing EU migration is considered to be the number one issue during the renegotiation for both the Conservative Party and the electorate, but the objective to restrict EU migrant benefits has been torpedoed by fellow EU leaders.
For this reason Cameron can ill-afford to get specific on the new terms of UK membership. For the moment he has time on his side, but it is clear that he is no further into reaching an agreement in Brussels than he was a month ago. With Tory backbenchers calling for a clear list of demands to be in place by the time of the autumn party conference, it will be a very busy summer for Number 10.