Cameron demand for ‘emergency brake’ slowed talks

‘His party is divided, his cabinet as well,’ Enda Kenny says of British PM’s situation

British prime minister David Cameron meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny  the sidelines of the second day of the EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/EPA

British prime minister David Cameron meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny the sidelines of the second day of the EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/EPA

 

As talks over Britain’s renegotiation dragged on in Brussels over Friday, the lack of progress was expressed in culinary terms: a planned “English breakfast” to sign off on the deal was pushed back first to brunch, then lunch, tea and, finally, dinner.

By early evening, delegations from the 28 member states had been advised to book hotel rooms for the night. And British prime minister David Cameron cancelled a planned Friday night cabinet meeting in London, at which he hoped to announce the date of the referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

To be fair, the leaders had a late start – a fractious dinner on Thursday night to discuss the migration crisis went on until 3.30am. Cameron, European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker then conducted bilateral meetings with individual leaders for a further two hours.

By the time they returned to the dreary, brown marble halls of the Justus Lipsius building at 11am yesterday, the stumbling blocks to a deal had dwindled to a handful.

The most stubborn of these surrounded proposals to limit benefit payments to citizens of other EU countries living in Britain. Some member states also had difficulties with elements of the proposal on economic governance and how the British renegotiation should be enshrined in future EU treaties.

“We managed to have a compromise on many, many issues,” said Polish prime minister Konrad Szymanski. “But we still need more clarification, more guarantees to get the compromise which would be satisfactory for both sides. There’s still some way to go; we need some hours.”

Cameron wanted the “emergency brake” restricting welfare payments to be applicable for up to 13 years, while central and eastern European leaders wanted it limited to five years.

The British prime minister had already conceded that the reduction of in-work benefit payments to EU migrants for four years would not apply to those already living in Britain.

However, Britain wanted to immediately start indexing the level of child benefits for children living overseas to take account of different standards of living. Poland and its allies insisted that the measure should apply only to new arrivals in the UK, and they resisted the idea that such indexation would be available to all EU members.

During the early hours of Friday morning, a senior EU official who has been involved in the talks suggested that the magnitude of Europe’s migration crisis would encourage EU leaders to move quickly on agreeing a deal.

By Friday evening, however, the migration crisis threatened to upend the negotiations when Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras said he would not sign off on it without a guarantee that European borders would not be closed to refugees in the coming weeks.

Tsipras’s move reflected the crumbling of solidarity within the EU, as the scars of the euro zone crisis have made the migration crisis more difficult to confront collectively. Frayed nerves over the issue may have made Cameron’s task of winning acceptance for his demands more of a struggle.

As the leaders prepared to meet for dinner, Cameron met Taoiseach Enda Kenny to ask him to intervene once again on Britain’s behalf. During the summit’s first discussion of British demands on Thursday, Kenny had outlined the prime minister’s plight to the other leaders.

“His party is divided, his cabinet as well,” the Taoiseach said. “He faces a hostile media. The electorate are not used to this kind of referendum. Let’s give him the tools for this fight.”

Kenny added a quote from Macbeth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”

As the talks ground onwards, Cameron received the unwelcome news from London that his justice secretary, Michael Gove, was preparing to back a British exit from the EU.

Although he is not especially popular with the British public, Gove could bring some badly needed intellectual heft to the Leave campaign.

Gove’s announcement also makes it more likely that London mayor Boris Johnson, one of the few truly charismatic figures in British politics, will follow suit.

In an Ipsos MORI poll this week, 32 per cent of British voters said Johnson would be important in their decision of how to vote in the referendum, with only the prime minister himself capable of influencing a greater share of the electorate.

The loss of Johnson as well as Gove to the Leave side would be a serious blow to Cameron, who until now has hoped to limit cabinet defections to a few hardline Eurosceptic ministers.

As 1,000 people crowded into an auditorium in central London on Friday night for a pro-Brexit rally, a referendum which until recently Cameron was hotly tipped to win was starting to look like a most uncertain prospect.

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