Tough bargaining and major differences on issues such as migration and British financial benefits for EU citizens marked the second day of the European Council summit, holding up a deal on Britain’s membership of the 28-member bloc.
Top leaders of EU member-states were locked in talks overnight, but they were nowhere near a final deal on Britain’s demands to reform the terms of membership. Some called it British “blackmail” while others remained optimistic of the outcome.
Greece wanted a bargain: it would support Britain’s case provided it received backing for the challenges it faced on migration of Syrian and other refugees, many of whom first reach Greece before moving to other European countries.
Reflecting entrenched positions on the key issue of state financial benefits for EU migrants in Britain, the office of Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo confirmed Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposed restrictions remained a “particularly difficult” issue. Thousands of Poles moved to Britain after the country was admitted to the EU in 2004.
Both Cameron and European Council president Donald Tusk claimed “some progress”, but admitted there was much ground to be covered before a deal could be agreed and announced.
There is less appetite in Brussels to drag this issue, leading to the expectation that there will finally be some sort of a deal, even if the two-day meeting spills into the weekend.
There are high political stakes for Cameron to secure a deal that he can sell to the British public in a referendum, which he has promised by the end of 2017, but is keen to hold as soon as possible. June 23 is said to be the most likely date.
Cameron reiterated on Friday he would not take a deal that is not beneficial to Britain. Returning from Brussels without a deal after months of intense negotiations is unlikely to enhance his ratings.
Political circles in Britain were watching developments in Brussels keenly, including top ministers in Cameron’s government, who are keen to announce their support to the “Leave EU” or “Remain in EU” camp.
Eurosceptic circles have already disparaged the proposed deal, even if it were to be reached, as not being good enough for Britain. While business circles are keen for Britain to stay in the EU for the benefits it brings, there is a growing perception that it will not really be a disaster if Britain votes to exit the EU.
No child’s play
One of the most difficult issues is “child benefit”: the amount the British government pays British citizens and migrants from the European Union. Due to the strength of the pound and different levels of development and cost of living in some European countries, Britain wants this to be indexed to the local cost of living rather than pay the rate applicable in Britain.
Thousands of EU migrants in Britain have families and children living in their home countries, where the child benefit is sent. Cameron promised to stop sending such payments outside Britain, but since it would be against “free movement” and other principles of the EU, he now wants to index it to local rates.
The child benefit is a tax-free payment aimed at helping parents cope with the cost of bringing up children. One parent can claim £20.50 a week for an eldest or only child and £13.55 a week for each of their other children.