British prime minister David Cameron began his tour of Europe in The Hague and Paris on Thursday. He intends to visit all 27 capitals before the June 26th summit of heads of state and government, to formulate British demands in advance of the referendum on a "Brexit".
The meeting with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, an ally, was expected to go smoothly. But Mr Cameron's dinner with President Francois Hollande at the Élysée Palace promised to be more difficult.
The French and British leaders have little in common, and Paris takes a dim view of the British referendum.
Foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who ranks second in the government, expressed French reservations in an interview with France Inter radio hours before Mr Cameron's arrival, calling the referendum "dangerous" and warning that France would in no event accept the "dismemberment" of the EU.
Mr Cameron “launched this plan for a referendum, which is something very risky,” Mr Fabius said. “I find this process fairly dangerous.”
Mr Fabius seemed to blame British politicians for anti-EU feeling, saying: “Obviously, the British population, who have grown accustomed to hearing ‘Europe is a bad thing. Europe is a bad thing,’ the day they’ll be consulted, there’s a risk they’ll say, ‘You told us Europe is a bad thing.’”
The UK “certainly” stands to lose most if it leaves Europe, Mr Fabius said, but “it would also be negative for Europe . . . We want Great Britain to remain in the EU. But as much as we support improving the union, we cannot agree to its dismemberment.”
Mr Fabius promised that French leaders would listen to Mr Cameron, but he joked that the British “joined a football club. You can’t say in the middle of a match, ‘Now we’re going to play rugby.’”
Mr Hollande was expected to outline Franco-German proposals for greater cooperation on energy and digital technology – not what Mr Cameron is looking for. The British leader reportedly seeks restrictions on welfare payments for immigrants within Europe, an opt-out from the “ever closer union” clause of the founding Treaty of Rome, and possibly the right to veto eurogroup decisions that could have an impact on the single market. The latter would be a non-starter for Paris.
Changes in EU treaties are another red line for Mr Hollande. Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the referendum on the constitutional treaty, which was rejected by 54.68 per cent of French voters. Three days later, the Netherlands also rejected the treaty, by a 61 per cent margin.
The 2005 referendums dealt a severe blow to EU integration and cost Mr Hollande the 2007 presidential candidacy. He dreads the prospect that a British referendum will revive European issues as he stands for re-election.
Florian Philippot, the vice president of the anti-EU National Front, said his party "is obviously very interested by this [British] initiative because it corresponds to what we've proposed. Cameron's timing will bring the question of belonging to Europe to the heart of the 2016-2017 [presidential] campaign."