EU referendum: Jean-Claude Juncker insists plans are 'fair deal' for Britain

European Commission President urges MEPs to back deal he says 'addresses David Cameron's concerns'

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The Independent Online

The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has insisted the EU reform plans offer a “fair” settlement for Britain, urging MEPs to back the deal aimed at keeping the UK in the bloc.

Mr Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that he had worked hard with David Cameron to shape a deal. “We have addressed the Prime Minister’s concerns while respecting the treaties,” he said. “The settlement that has been proposed is fair for the UK and fair for the other 27 member states.”

The reform proposals – unveiled by the EU Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday – aim to recast the UK’s membership before a likely in/out EU referendum at the end of June. MEPs need to approve parts of the reform plan beforehand, but their backing is being taken as a given. Mr Juncker pointed out: “Apart from the Ukip representatives and other political parties on the extreme wings of this house, all members of all political parties have pleaded to keep the UK in the EU.”

Mr Juncker acknowledged that the EU treaty reference to “ever-closer union” – which Mr Cameron sought to scrap – has evolved over time. “If the United Kingdom considers that it is now at the limits of its level of integration then that is fine,” he said, while adding that “other member states can move towards a deeper degree of integration as they see fit”.

The former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the parliament’s liberal Alde group, said the UK would be a “dwarf” if it left. “It would be a huge mistake if Britain would leave the European Union, not so much economically but most of all geopolitically,” he said. 

Umunna on EU deal

Mr Verhofstadt, who has already vowed to travel to the UK and hold a debate with the Ukip leader Nigel Farage during the referendum campaign, said the only winner from a Brexit would be the Russian President Vladimir Putin, “because Putin likes a divided Europe”.

The German MEP Manfred Weber, who heads the centre-right European People’s Party group, said the reforms were not just for the British, but for all Europeans. “We want the UK to stay in the EU and for the people of the UK to be convinced it is better to stay,” he said.

The French National Front leader Marine le Pen said that with “the EU collapsing under the weight of its contradictions”, the renegotiation was “just theatre”. Ms Le Pen, who is also pushing for an in/out referendum in France, added: “I don’t think anyone is being taken in by this masquerade that the Brits can improve what’s happening in the EU and stay in.”

In the next fortnight intense negotiations will take place to reach a deal before an EU summit on 18 and 19 February in Brussels. Mr Cameron is making another tour of European capitals, stopping in Warsaw on Friday, where he will try to win over a sceptical Polish government. At the same time, the EU’s 28 sherpas – officials who prepare the summits – will meet on Friday to discuss the draft deal.