EU, UK hold ‘make or break’ meet
BRUSSELS – Agence France-Presse
REUTERS photoThe European Union and the United Kingdom have started a two-day summit that will either make or break the latter’s membership in the EU, with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker noting his confidence in a deal to keep Britain from crashing out of the EU.
Despite key questions about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s demands remaining unresolved at the start of the tense two-day summit on Feb. 18, Juncker played up the chances of an agreement to avoid a so-called “Brexit.”
“I’m quite confident that we will have a deal during this European Council. We have to sort out a certain number of questions,” said Juncker.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who like Juncker held talks with Cameron earlier this week, said there was a “great deal of interest in ensuring Britain remains in the European Union.”
European Council head Donald Tusk warned Feb. 17 that there was “no guarantee” EU leaders would clinch a deal to keep Britain in the bloc at a crucial summit, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed London’s demands for reform.
Just hours before the summit in Brussels, which he will chair, Tusk said: “After my consultations in the last hours, I have to state frankly – there is still no guarantee that we will reach an agreement.
“We differ on some political issues and I am fully aware that it will be difficult to overcome them. Therefore, I urge you to remain constructive,” he said in a formal letter of invitation to the summit.
Cameron, under pressure from euroskeptics in his own center-right Conservative Party and a hostile right-wing press, has demanded a series of reforms that will return powers to London ahead of a British referendum on whether to leave the EU.
Merkel, the EU’s undoubted power-broker, earlier offered the British premier her support with the caveat that any changes must not compromise fundamental EU values, such as the free movement of people.
“Like David Cameron, I believe that it is necessary for the EU to improve our competitiveness, transparency and [reduce] bureaucracy. Germany has shared these concerns for many years,” she said.
But four Eastern European states oppose Cameron’s call for restrictions on welfare benefits to EU migrants working in Britain, while France leads opposition to protections for countries like Britain that do not use the euro.
The 28-member European Union is also battling its worst migration crisis since World War II and has proved unable to forge a common response to the wave of people arriving from the conflict-torn Middle East and elsewhere.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office released a statement saying talks between the two men would continue on Feb. 18.
“They agreed that good progress had been made in all four areas of our renegotiation, and that the draft texts presented a good basis for agreement at tomorrow’s European Council, subject to the satisfactory resolution of outstanding issues,” the statement read.
Cameron has staked his political survival on winning the vote in the hope of ending a feud over Britain’s place in the EU that has plagued his Conservative Party for decades.
Britons voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the EU in a 1975 referendum, just two years after joining, when the then Labour government said the country would miss out on Europe’s growing prosperity if it left.
That is the same case made now – but with Britain more prosperous and growing faster than most of its EU peers, eurosceptics say “Brexit” should hold no fears.