When David Cameron made his way to dinner in Brussels on Thursday, he promised to go in “battling for Britain through the night”. But while his fourth basket, on restricting migrant benefits, seems to have been killed off, (in its current form at least), the renegotiation project as a whole seems to be alive and well. In any case, alternative solutions for the fourth basket are on the table, and include what Jean-Claude Juncker called an “emergency brake” to control migrant benefits.
The Prime Minister came out speaking of the “good progress” that had been made, albeit with much “hard work” still to do. And crucially, it wasn’t just the British Prime Minister who was in a positive mood. Council President Donald Tusk told the press that he was now “much more optimistic” than before that a deal could be struck, citing “a good atmosphere and goodwill” around the table.
Any progress for the Prime Minister?
The atmosphere certainly seems to have been a lively one. François Hollande said that the discussions had been “in diplomatic language, frank”. The Financial Times reveals that talks were at times heated and emotional, with Lithuanian President (and karate black belt…) Dalia Grybauskaitė at one point crying “blackmail!” The paper also reports that, worryingly for Mr Cameron, “more leaders than expected raised concerns about giving national parliaments a bigger say over EU legislation”. This is echoed in the BBC’s summary, where Jean-Claude Juncker is quoted saying: “I’d like to warn you of the illusory impression that there are three easy questions and [only] one tricky one”.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the FT, however. Importantly, Thursday night’s session succeeded in that it “broke a worrying political deadlock”. It is clear now that EU leaders are in the mood to work together to avoid Brexit.
The willingness to work together includes David Cameron himself, as he agreed that he was against discrimination, thereby all but conceding his fourth basket in its current form. Jochen Buchsteiner of Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung correctly predicted that the Prime Minister would be going to the summit exhibiting a new “readiness for compromise”, despite his bellicose rhetoric.
Some gloomy voices on both Right and Left
For Brexit campaigners and pro-Brexit newspapers in Britain, the dinner was regarded as a defeat for David Cameron at the hands of an ever-stubborn EU. The Daily Mail quotes UKIP leader Nigel Farage, saying that the Prime Minister “came, saw and got hammered”. Mr Cameron will have to back down on migrant benefits, and the newspaper sees this as a deal-breaker.
In another article in the same newspaper, columnist Richard Littlejohn makes it clear that no deal with the EU would be worth it anyway, and that the summit was “pointless”. The article compares the seemingly never-ending renegotiation saga with Star Wars – “May the farce be with you…” - as does Daily Telegraph cartoonist Christian Adams.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, The Guardian is similarly downbeat, reporting that Mr Cameron “faces Brussels deadlock over migrants’ benefits”. The newspaper claims that other EU leaders said the Prime Minister backtracked on the issue. The Guardian considers the summit proof that the Prime Minister’s eight-month tour of European capitals ultimately failed in its aim of building support for his reform package.
With another article suggesting that for “many EU leaders [the] immigration crisis loomed larger than the Brexit question”, it seems as if EU leaders are either unwilling or uninterested in offering Britain a decent deal.
Merkel throws a lifeline - Socialists not playing ball
The Times reports that Angela Merkel gave Mr Cameron “a lifeline over EU reforms”.
While treaty change will not happen now, the German Chancellor laid out a compromise, according to the Financial Times: of a “postdated promise of treaty change, similar to that afforded to Denmark in 1992”. The FT says that it was Ms Merkel who set the tone and direction of the early debate.
However, François Hollande was “leading the resistance” as Mr Cameron’s fourth basket was “roundly opposed”. The French President did not help matters after dinner by seeming to reveal to the press that the Prime Minister is indeed looking to hold the referendum in summer 2016. (David Cameron has been keen to avoid naming a date).
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also “twisted the knife, abandoning his party’s position to side with Hollande” according to The Times. European Parliament President Martin Schulz did not seem to be in the mood to do Mr Cameron any favours either, saying that “David Cameron has to come around to the EU position rather than the other way around. It’s not like it’s us who invented this referendum”.
The European press strikes a more sympathetic tone
As ever, the press on the Continent sees the potential for a deal far more readily than its British counterpart. In France, Le Monde says that Europe is ready to help David Cameron to avoid Brexit. It also considers the Prime Minister to have put in a sterling performance in Brussels. Whereas the FT suggested that his forty-five-minute exposition speech which “threatened to interrupt” the main course was too long – “not quite Castro length”, Le Monde says it was perfectly judged: “parfait sur la forme et le style, brilliant”.
The paper thinks that Europe’s leaders take the threat of Brexit seriously given the last six polls on Brexit. These have found that only 51% of UK voters would vote to remain in the EU. European leaders do not want to see Brexit happen and will do what they can to prevent it. President Hollande admits that while he is opposed to a Europe à la carte, he is willing to see a Europe of “concentric circles”.
Stefan Kornelius writes in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung that Mr Cameron’s EU reform proposals are “no longer unfulfillable”. Brexit would be worse than any other crisis that the EU has faced up to this point, and as such David Cameron can be hopeful of getting a good deal. There is also praise for the Cameron government for understanding “the most important lesson of all” – that the EU only works when all of its members are profiting from it.
Die Welt agrees that the EU will have no choice but to offer Britain “Reformgeschenke”. Although there is no way that the fourth basket will be accepted, EU leaders will be aware that they need to give Mr Cameron a reform package that he can sell to sceptical voters in the UK.
When he set off for Brussels, David Cameron said that “we’re not pushing for a deal, we’re pushing for momentum”. Judging by what Donald Tusk and the newspapers in Europe have had to say, he seems to have succeeded in this. Back home, however, much of the press is far from convinced - and probably never will be.
This EU summit has heralded the end of the road for the Prime Minister’s fourth basket, in its current formulation. But didn’t we know that much already? Much of the British press, particularly on the Right, sees the death of the fourth basket as a defeat for the entire renegotiation project. But did Mr Cameron (and his famously politically astute sidekick George Osborne) ever seriously believe it would be accepted?
The Prime Minister is unlikely to be as downbeat as the newspapers back home. If anything, he will be pleased to see them kicking up such a fuss. The British public will now be expecting precious little from the all-important February summit. But with EU leaders desperate to avert a Brexit perhaps he will at least come away with some things to sell. The four-year benefit ban will not be part of the package, but perhaps he could secure an “emergency brake”. It has a rather dramatic ring to it after all…
Sources: Sky News | Guardian | Financial Times | BBC | Daily Mail | Daily Telegraph | The Times | Le Monde | Süddeutsche Zeitung | Die Welt | Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Edward Aldred has recently graduated from the University of Oxford where he studied German. He is currently working as an intern with Open Europe Berlin.