On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Inside Westminster

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The Independent Online

“Let’s not create a big division; we need to handle the communications carefully,” David Cameron told the other 27 European Union leaders at a recent summit that discussed an unexpected demand for Britain to pay an extra £1.7bn into EU coffers.

Everyone agreed. But when 18 of the leaders went into a session for eurozone members, they were appalled to read on their iPads that Cameron was angrily refusing to pay the bill and banging the lectern at a press conference in the same Brussels building. 

One by one, they put the boot into Cameron. “They were livid,” one EU diplomat told me this week. “Cameron said he didn’t want a row and then started one. Other leaders are fed up with him saying one thing in private and another in public.”

All EU leaders play to the domestic gallery, but Brussels insiders say Cameron’s “Mr Angry” act has done  him a lot of damage at a time when he needs to make friends in Europe in order to get a new deal for Britain ahead of the in/out referendum he has promised for 2017.

Cameron’s outburst still rankles and was being talked about in the margins when EU leaders gathered in Brussels two days ago for their next summit.

In between, the Prime Minister had been much more conciliatory towards the EU than expected when he made his long-awaited speech on immigration. At the last minute, he dropped plans to challenge the EU’s founding principle of  the free movement of people, after Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, made clear that would be a non-starter.  Instead, he said EU migrants should have to wait four years before they could receive tax credits, child benefit and social housing.

The speech was seen in Brussels as a welcome change of rhetoric by Cameron. There is much more appetite in EU capitals for tackling abuse of the system than for changing it. But EU diplomats I spoke to this week regard a four-year delay as ambitious, and believe that Britain might have to settle for two.

There are also grave doubts that Cameron would get a deal by the autumn of 2017, when he intends to hold the referendum. Some of his reforms would require changes to the EU’s governing treaty, which would need the unanimous support of all 28 members. If he remains in power after next May’s general election, Cameron would expect his demands to be met in return for endorsing treaty changes, which Merkel wants to use to entrench fiscal discipline in the eurozone.

But François Hollande, France’s unpopular President, has no desire for treaty changes, as they would need approval in a French referendum that would be bound to turn into a vote on him. Some in Downing Street want to target an agreement for a small window of opportunity between the French presidential election in the spring of 2017 and the German election in the autumn.

Downing Street knows that Hollande will do Cameron no favours but hopes that an incoming French president might. It could even be the comeback kid Nicolas Sarkozy. But it is unclear why any new French president would risk a referendum in his first year in office just to help the Brits.

And yet in the EU, where there’s a will, there’s a way. It might be possible to implement the Cameron agenda without an immediate change to the treaty. One option would be a political agreement by the 28 national leaders on a new British deal to be formally ratified the next time a treaty is agreed. This has been done in the past to help Denmark.

But there is a problem. Could Cameron “sell” a promise from EU leaders to the British public at a time when scepticism about politicians has turned to outright cynicism?  A new deal for Britain that was not signed, sealed and delivered, might play into the hands of Ukip, Conservative Europhobes and hostile British press.

So Mr Cameron will have an uphill struggle – first to get, and then to “sell”, an agreement. He will need the support of two key players on the EU stage – Merkel, who normally calls the shots, and Donald Tusk, the former Polish Prime Minister, who will have to broker a deal as President of the European Council – the meeting of the 28 national leaders.

Cameron aides describe Tusk as an ally, recalling that he had Britain’s support when he landed the president’s post this autumn. The truth is more complicated. Cameron wanted someone from another country because he knew Poland would resist curbs on migrants’ rights. Downing Street trumpeted Tusk’s candidacy at the last minute, but only after Merkel warned Mr Cameron he would face another humiliating defeat if he promoted someone else – like the one he had just suffered by opposing Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President. While Tusk now represents the whole EU rather than Poland, he knows that Britain didn’t really want him. “The Poles never forget,” one Brussels source snarled ominously.

But Merkel will matter most. She wants Britain, a natural ally, to remain in the EU club. But German officials say there will be no “carte blanche” for Cameron, that any deal would have to be in Germany’s overall interest. As one EU diplomat put it yesterday: “Merkel will play everyone off against everyone else and then make a judgement call. She will help Cameron up to a point. The 64,000 euro question is: how much?”

Cameron’s fate – and possibly Britain’s future in Europe – lies in Merkel’s hands.