Round-the-clock negotiations between British Prime Minister David Cameron and his fellow European Union leaders yielded a deal late Friday night that they hope will keep Britain from becoming the first country to leave the 28-member bloc.
The United Kingdom is expected to hold a referendum on the matter in June. A British exit — popularly known as “Brexit” — is strongly opposed by all E.U. leaders, Cameron included, and it could have disastrous consequences for the future of a body that has defined Europe’s post-war order.
Cameron said later in a news conference that the package of E.U. reforms was “enough” for him to recommend that Britain remain in the union. It gives Britain “the best of both worlds,” he said.
But European leaders who gathered this week in Brussels were reluctant to give Cameron the sort of wide-ranging concessions he previously said he needed to sell continued E.U. membership to his increasingly populist-minded voters. A deal that was supposed to be celebrated at an “English breakfast” Friday morning instead was left undone through more than 24 hours of nearly continuous talks in which both sides struggled to bridge wider-than-expected gaps.
A breakthrough finally came as European leaders dined over veal fillets and polenta late Friday evening. In the end, Cameron received concessions that amounted to far less than the fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the E.U. that he had promised. But he was expected to declare victory nonetheless.
Still, it remains an open question whether Cameron received enough to sway his electorate, which polls show is nearly evenly divided on the question of whether to stick with the E.U. Brexit advocates insist that the country is being weighed down by its ties to the continent, and particularly by the open borders to European immigration that are required under E.U. treaties.
The most controversial element of Cameron’s renegotiation demands was a proposal to limit government benefits for workers who move to Britain from elsewhere in the E.U. Eastern European countries, which are the source of much of that migration, waged a tough battle to water down any changes.
The deal was originally supposed to be sealed Friday over breakfast, with E.U. leaders gathered around a table piled high with bacon and beans.
But as negotiations that began on Thursday afternoon hit a series of snags overnight, plans for breakfast were pushed back to an English brunch. Then lunch. Then high tea. Late Friday, the presumably famished leaders finally sat down to dinner — and launched into another long night of talks.
Seated around the elaborate ballroom table, Cameron wore white shirt-sleeves alongside his suit-jacket-clad counterparts. The mood appeared jovial, though that masked some of the bitter division that defined the negotiations.
Cameron is expected to use the fraught nature of the talks to demonstrate that he battled to the end with European counterparts to get the best possible deal for Britain.
Experts said there was undoubtedly an element of theatrics involved in the through-the-night negotiations.
“The negotiations have to be difficult to create the sense of having gained something big,” said London School of Economics political analyst Tony Travers.
But already on Friday, British Euroskeptics were lining up to proclaim the long and protracted talks as Exhibit A in their portrayal of the E.U. as a hopelessly dysfunctional institution that is beyond hope for serious reform.
Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party, wrote on Twitter that Cameron has “gone from talking about fundamental change to holding out a begging bowl for minor concessions.”
Indeed, the changes agreed on Friday would not fundamentally alter the E.U. But the stakes are high, nonetheless: Cameron has long said he believes that Britain should stay in the E.U. only if the union can be reformed to better serve British interests. The prime minister will now have to take the concessions won this week, and make the case to British voters that they should stick with the union in a referendum widely expected this June.
European officials have uniformly said they want to keep Britain in the club. But they have also bridled at what many regard as a British attempt to blackmail the union into giving the United Kingdom a special deal.
In a case laid out last year, Cameron proposed four changes: an exemption from Europe’s vow to pursue “ever-closer union”; protections for members that do not use the euro; a national veto over E.U. legislation; and, most controversially, permission to limit benefits paid to immigrants from within the E.U.
All four measures would loosen the bonds of continental integration, and each proved a difficult sell to reach the unanimous agreement that the E.U. requires. The French pushed back against attempts to weaken financial regulations. Eastern Europeans called foul on benefit restrictions. The Germans fretted that abandoning ever-closer union could scupper the European project.
Other variables also came into play, as well. Before signing off on a deal, Greek negotiators reportedly sought a promise that the E.U. would not shut the country’s northern border to refugees. Such a move, which several E.U. members have advocated, could effectively trap thousands of asylum seekers in Greece and prevent them from reaching the countries in northern Europe where they hope to settle.
Despite the obstacles, some E.U. leaders were outspoken in arguing that the E.U. would suffer if Britain ends up bolting from a union that has been decades in the making.
“We all, of course, pursue our national interests. But we should also bear in mind that should Britain leave, we all get nothing,” said Estonian prime minister Taavi Roivas as he arrived for the Friday talks.
European leaders are mindful that a British exit could be just the start of a broader unraveling, with Euroskeptic forces in their own countries likely to be emboldened if one of the cornerstones of the E.U. project departs.
Cameron was expected late Friday to soon return to London for the official launch of the campaign. But even before the negotiations were complete, he was facing defections. One of the most senior members of his cabinet, Michael Gove, will join the “out” campaign, the BBC and other media outlets reported Friday evening.
Most of the government’s other top officials were expected to stick with the prime minister and support the “in” campaign. But some leading Conservatives have yet to show their cards, including London Mayor Boris Johnson, who would give “out” a charismatic potential leader if he ends up siding with Brexit.
The date for the referendum is widely expected to be June 23, though the prime minister technically has until the end of 2017 to hold a vote that he promised during last year’s general election.
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