BRUSSELS: British Prime Minister David Cameron found his reform agenda sidelined at a tense EU summit Thursday as leaders warned he faces tough negotiations ahead of a referendum on whether to leave the bloc.
As he walked into the Brussels summit dominated by Greece and migration, Cameron said it marked a “significant milestone” in Britain’s bid to renegotiate ties with the European Union before a referendum due by the end of 2017.
European leaders discussed his proposals for just a few minutes at dinner between fraught discussions on migration before agreeing to move to the next stage in the process.
“It’s been a long night and we’ve discussed some very important subjects, but above all I’m delighted that the process of British reform and renegotiation and the referendum that we’re going to hold, that process is now properly underway,” Cameron said afterwards.
“People always say to me that these things aren’t possible, that you’ll never get them done. Well once again we’ve proved we will get them done. We’ve started that process and it’s underway.”
This involves detailed technical talks after the broad discussions, which Cameron has so far had on the issue with his fellow 27 EU leaders.
It is thought the issue will get only a short mention in Friday’s final communiqué.
‘Only safe changes’
EU leaders are focused on trying to keep Greece in the eurozone and halting an influx of migrants from Middle East and African trouble spots, meaning substantive talks on Britain’s desired reforms will have to wait.
Nevertheless, EU President Donald Tusk warned that only changes that were “safe” for Europe would be considered.
“The British prime minister set out his plans for an in/out referendum, so the talks on UK renegotiation will now get underway. It was the first step in a longer process,” the former Polish premier said.
“One thing should be clear from the very beginning: the fundamental values of the European Union are not for sale and so are non-negotiable. We should consider British concerns, but only in a way that will be safe for all Eu- rope. We will come back to this in December.”
Unease over EU ties
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, also fired a shot across the bows of Cameron, who has insisted the changes he wants require treaty change.
“I think treaty change is quite difficult and the UK government should not only exclusively focus on treaty change,” he said.
British officials accepted Thursday that any treaty change might not be implemented by the referendum but that Cameron would secure legally binding pledges that EU laws would be altered to include the reforms.
The Brussels summit came the day after Queen Elizabeth II used a state visit to Germany to warn, “Division in Europe is dangerous.”
Cameron favors staying in Europe as long as he can secure the reforms he says are necessary.
He told fellow EU leaders at Thursday’s dinner of the importance of taking talks forward to address unease in Britain about its ties with the EU, a British official speaking on condition of anonymity said.
Cameron has long stressed four broad areas for reform on which more detailed proposals will now be drawn up.
These are improving competitiveness; ensuring fairness for non-eurozone countries; protecting sovereignty, including opting out of the EU’s commitment to “ever closer union” and limiting access to benefits for migrants.
The British leader is facing pressure from some in his center-right Conservative party, which has a strong euroskeptic fringe, to reveal more detail on exactly what he is demanding.
Cameron’s official spokesman said what mattered was “the substance and that technical work gets under way before the summer.”
Senior EU civil servant Jonathan Faull, a Briton, has been appointed to lead a taskforce in Brussels on the referendum.
The summit comes after five weeks of whirlwind diplomacy by Cameron since he won May’s general election in which he has met all 27 other EU leaders to argue for change.
While the referendum must take place by the end of 2017, ministers are keen to hold it sooner if possible and some senior Conservatives now believe it will take place in the second half of next year.