4 December 2015

A number of UK papers splash on the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday confirmed that the UK-EU negotiations on the UK’s EU reform demands are not going to be concluded at the EU December Summit saying,

We are not going to agree it in one go so I do not expect to reach agreement at this December summit but we won’t take our foot off the pedal.

For anyone who has been following this debate (or reading the Open Europe Daily Shake Up) this is not entirely surprising. As such, while the media likes talking up a crisis, its importance should not be overblown for a number of reasons and must be seen in the context of EU events and negotiations in the past few months.

A deal in February has looked more likely for some time

It has always been debatable whether a deal could be finalised at December’s summit. This has looked increasingly difficult given the number of other issues on the table particularly in terms of migration and security. Furthermore, in recent weeks it has essentially been confirmed by a number of high level players in the negotiations that a deal at the February summit looks a more likely proposition.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (hat tip Politico’s Ryan Heath) said as far back as September that,

When I’ve had a few glasses of champagne I think there might be agreement at the December European Council, a package and we can move forward. But I think when I wake up with a headache more realistically the December European Council is going to represent the start of the serious and multi-lateral negotiations around the British package, but we expect that process to accelerate in the New Year and the really serious negotiations to take place early in 2016.

Similarly, it was widely reported around ten days ago that Jonathan Faull, the head of the UK taskforce at the European Commission, had suggested that a deal looks unlikely in December and February had emerged as a more likely target.

Can this be categorised as a defeat for Cameron?

Many of the reports suggest this is a defeat for Cameron who had his heart set on a deal at December’s summit. Again this seems to be a bit of a mischaracterisation of the UK’s position and the reasons underpinning why the deal won’t be sealed in December.

On the first point, it’s clear the Government was never firmly wedded to a deal in December, and it has been pretty consistent in saying that negotiations will go on for as long as it takes to get a good deal. A couple of days ago Chancellor George Osborne reiterated this when he told the Commons Treasury committee that,

[David Cameron’s] personal opinion and mine were and are that December is better than February [to finalise a deal]…Perhaps I am being too cautious, but my first suggestion would be to keep working, because maybe February would be a more realistic and safe date.

This has been the government’s line and tone since the election essentially. Even behind the scenes the noises have been similar and while there was always a preference for December, it is a bit unfair to present it as a hard and fast target.

Furthermore, it’s also important to look at why a deal will unlikely be struck in December. Obviously, this is partially down to recent events in Paris, out of the control of David Cameron or any EU leaders. The dragging migration crisis and the EU’s slow response is a bit more within their control but has also played a role in meaning the schedule of many EU leaders remains packed. It’s hard to present this as a defeat for Cameron, though he will obviously have to make sure his demands are addressed at some point. He also has to make the point more clearly and strongly why some of the changes he is demanding address some of the challenges already on the table, such as: the democratic deficit, competitiveness issues and the potentially damaging disparity between Eurozone and non-Eurozone states.

Many reports also suggest that ultimately, the deal has been delayed because Cameron is sticking to his guns in terms of demanding legally binding and irreversible changes and even treaty changes with regards to the issue of limiting migrants access to in work benefits. It seems strange to present someone sticking to their guns in an on-going negotiation as admitting defeat. There are suggestions that he was slapped down by German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the migrants’ benefits issue by the fact that she will not force the issue with Eastern Europe. Again, as we warned in our EU Reform Heat Map analysis, Germany may be willing to accept this issue but it is not going to bang the drum for the UK and force other countries to get on board. The UK Government will have to do that itself.

What does this mean for the timing of the EU referendum?

With all that out of the way, the real and important question is what this means for the timing of the EU referendum. A June referendum, previously seen as a best-case scenario, now appears increasingly unlikely. Although, I think this was increasingly being seen as the case anyway (as we have noted before there are pluses and minuses around an early or later referendum). That said, if a deal is struck at the summit in mid-February it is not entirely impossible for the referendum to be held in mid-to-late June as that would provide just enough time for the four month notice period as specified in the EU referendum bill.

Speaking of the bill, this still needs to be passed and while the noises coming out of the government suggest they are confident this can be done before the end of the year, or at the start of the new year, there are still some issues that need to be resolved, not least dealing with the House of Lords’ amendment on votes for 16 and 17 year olds.

In the end, there are a number of domestic and EU hurdles still to overcome. But that has been known for some time and as such this declaration doesn’t seem to change all that much. One thing it does seem to highlight is that Cameron is pushing hard for some of the changes the UK is seeking.