Brexit vote closer after Tusk signals potential for summit deal

European Council president to provide solid proposals to address British PM’s demands

The prospect of an early referendum on Britain's EU membership moved closer yesterday after European Council president Donald Tusk said a deal could be agreed at next month's summit and a British cabinet minister suggested the vote could be held in June.

Mr Tusk told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that he would present "concrete proposals" to address David Cameron's demands ahead of the summit, adding that a February deal was "not easy" but possible.

“As of today, the result of the referendum is more unpredictable than ever before. Time is of the essence here. And this is why I will work hard to strike a deal in February,” he said.

Mr Cameron’s demands fall into four “baskets”: relations with the euro area; national sovereignty; economic competitiveness; and the relationship between welfare benefits and migration into Britain from the rest of the EU. His most contentious demand is for a requirement that workers from other EU countries should wait four years after moving to Britain before they can claim benefits.


Free movement

Mr Tusk said the EU would come up with “a fair deal for Britain” but he ruled out compromising on fundamental values such as free movement of EU citizens.

Foreign secretary Philip Hammond said Britain was willing to consider alternatives to the four-year ban on claiming benefits, as long as they helped to deter migrants.

"In the end, this is about migration. Since access to welfare benefits is a means to end, there are various other mechanisms that we might consider and would test with public opinion. The prime minister has said four years, but there is no magic about four years. It is just a figure that we calculated would provide a sufficient deterrent. We are looking to deter people. We are looking to get people to make a calculation – 'you know what? I would be better off in a country with higher wages than Britain', and there are countries with higher wages than Britain," he told the Guardian.

Early vote

Once a deal is agreed in Brussels, Mr Cameron needs six weeks to pass the necessary legislation for the referendum and must allow 10 weeks for the campaign, making June the earliest that a vote could be held. Traditionally, British elections are not held after the start of the Scottish school holidays or before the end of those in


, ruling out July and August. Scottish secretary

David Mundell

this week was the first cabinet minister to call for an early vote.

“I think there isn’t an argument against having the referendum in June. In fact, I think there is a strong argument to have it then,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chris Grayling, the Eurosceptic leader of the House of Commons, who is expected to campaign for Britain to leave the EU, has suggested that Mr Cameron would have a duty to stay on as prime minister if the Leave side wins.

“Firstly, he’s got a mandate for five years from the people of this country. Secondly, if we were to vote to leave I think that there is then a big challenge to prepare the ground for leaving, to negotiate the terms on which we would leave,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times