David Cameron

The prime minister was given the floor at a closed session to outline to the European Union’s heads of state why Britain needs a new deal with the EU. Photograph: Isopix

When David Cameron was given the floor at a dinner of European heads of government on Thursday evening, it was a form of accolade unusual in EU summitry. According to witnesses at the closed session, he took full advantage.

Floor 80, the secure top level of the European council building in Brussels, was reserved for the leaders. Room 80.4.5, wood-panelled and containing a large oval table, is where dinner takes place. The entry plaque tells you it is reserved for “chefs d’état ou gouvernement” – heads of state or government.

No one in Brussels can remember a previous event where attention was lavished on a single national leader. Over chicken terrine, fillet of venison and spiced orange, the prime minister was granted 45 minutes to spell out to the other leaders why Britain is special, why it needs a new deal with the EU and how they can help him win a very difficult referendum.

Speaking privately, some leaders present have said they were moved. “Eloquent”, “persuasive” and “convincing” were some of the terms used to describe Cameron’s performance. It was a unique moment for Cameron, his biggest in Europe in six years in office.

By all accounts, he performed more than well. There was no hectoring, no hammering the table, no tantrums recalling the one three weeks ago when Cameron told EU leaders that he needed his problems fixed on his terms and he needed it now.

Following his outlining of his case, he was inundated with queries and objections for the best part of three hours. It was quite a grilling and Cameron impressed. “It was a bit like the teacher and the pupils,” said a witness to some of the exchanges. “Everyone wanted to ask him questions.”

Twenty national leaders intervened to question Cameron and to state their positions on the UK wishlist for staying in the EU. But it was Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who enjoys a fearsome reputation for always being the best briefed person in the room at EU summits, who played the role of main synthesiser, offering explanations, summarising and reducing the problems to their essence, senior EU sources said.

Towards midnight, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, told the rest of them that having listened to the debate he had several ideas aimed at finding by February legal fixes to the issues raised by Cameron, solutions that everyone could live with. “I’ve got a number of ideas that I want to work on over the next period of weeks,” he said.

Cameron may have won plaudits all round for his political savvy, his presentational skills and the strength of his argument. But while the disputes at the heart of the British issue have softened, they are by no means resolved.

As the dinner was closing, the whole session came close to collapse in what would have been a failure near enough ensuring Britain’s departure from the EU.

Donald Tusk, chairing the summit and charged with crafting the compromises needed for a settlement by February, won a mandate to mediate deals in all four policy areas that Cameron spelled out in some detail. The fourth and final “bucket” is the most sensitive, entailing four years of benefits curbs for non-British EU citizens working in the UK. This is discriminatory and illegal under current EU law.

Belgium, Greece, and Portugal staged a last-minute attempt at a coup, trying to have the fourth “bucket” dropped as unacceptable from the negotiations, participants in the dinner said. Had they succeeded, Cameron’s strategy would have been in tatters and a Tory party manifesto campaign pledge would not even be up for discussion.

The three dissidents were overruled, but the incident highlighted the serious resistance to some of Cameron’s demands. Poland and Spain were also highly vocal critics, according to sources.Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania, also remained unmoved by the Cameron charm offensive, denouncing the British tactics as “blackmail”.

The resistance is far from limited to the issue of immigrant welfare curbs, although that remains the trickiest problem. Several countries voiced opposition to Cameron’s demand that national parliaments be given a greater say over EU legislation.

A more serious problem may turn out to be George Osborne’s campaign to secure watertight guarantees curbing eurozone policymaking if London deems it counter to UK interests or skewing fairness in the EU’s single market in the eurozone’s favour.

The German finance ministry, the French government and Mario Draghi, the powerful head of the European Central Bank – all formidable opponents – are worried that the British could engineer a deal that ties the eurozone’s policymaking hands, particularly in a crisis.

But it is the discrimination that is at the core of Cameron’s proposal to penalise EU citizens working in Britain that remains the toughest nut to crack. In the absence of alternative ideas, Cameron told the dinner he would not take theproposal to freeze in-work benefits for EU citizens in the UK off the table. To win that, he needs to force a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty. There is no evidence this can happen soon.

Yet, according to participants and despite public statements to the contrary, Cameron told the dinner that he did not want to change the treaty. Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said so three times on Friday.

“The prime minister said ‘I’m not looking for a veto, I’m not looking for treaty change’. The prime minister was very clear in not looking for treaty change. He made that point himself,” said Kenny.

Cameron’s lawyers, aides, and negotiators have been telling him for more than a year that his drive to curb benefits is illegal under current laws, only achievable through changing the EU treaty. That reality was once again made clear to Cameron on Thursday night by the leaders of France and Germany.

Nonetheless, top policymakers in Brussels involved in the negotiations say that Cameron emerged as the dinner’s winner. For the first time since Britain’s negotiations with the rest of the EU got under way in July, the mood has shifted. The substance of an agreement remains misty. Confidence is growing that a deal can be struck that can keep the UK in the EU.

[Source:- The Gurdian]

By Adam