Stakes high in UK-EU talks

London – European Council President Donald Tusk will present proposals on Tuesday for keeping Britain in the European Union, paving the way for a potentially difficult summit at which leaders will have to iron out remaining differences.

Britain hailed a deal reached with the EU on Monday allowing nation states to block some legislation, the second step Prime Minister David Cameron says he needs to persuade Britons to vote to stay in the bloc in a referendum which could be held in June.

But what was called “a breakthrough” did little to change the minds of some Eurosceptics in Britain, who see Cameron’s renegotiation of the country’s ties with the EU as little more than a waste of time. One called Cameron’s demands “trivial”.

Tusk said late on Monday that good progress had been made in talks to find agreement on the four areas where Cameron is seeking change. He will present his proposals in a letter to EU leaders (around 1100 GMT) before a summit on February 18-19.

Even Cameron’s ministers said any deal would be hard won.

“It may be that the document is so good that we say: ‘Yes brilliant’. But I rather doubt it,” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters in Rome. “I suspect that the document will be the basis of further work that we need to do in the run up to the Council. But we will see.”

Officials are keen to show Cameron has won agreement with Tusk on two important areas of the renegotiation – on stopping EU legislation it opposes and on curbing migrants’ benefits.

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A source said on Tuesday Tusk’s proposal would have a legally binding provision allowing a group of 55 percent or more member states to either stop EU legislation or demand changes to address concerns Britain has handed too much power to Brussels.

Officials also expect the text to include a clause saying Britain could suspend some payments to migrants from the bloc for four years, starting immediately after the referendum, after meeting the conditions to trigger a so-called ’emergency brake’.

Both should go some way to appeasing critics of EU membership in Cameron’s party, but more entrenched Eurosceptics wrote off the negotiations long ago, saying they were not ambitious enough in changing the relationship.

Demands

As well as curbing migration and returning powers to Britain, Cameron also wants his country excluded from the EU goal of “ever closer union” and says it should be protected against moves by the 19 countries that share the euro currency to impose rules by majority vote on London.

There is much still to decide, including the so-called ’emergency brake’, or suspension, on welfare payments to migrants will be in force and how to enforce protection for London’s financial industry, among others.

Talks will continue up to the February summit, but some Eurosceptics say the difficulties in getting a deal are being played up to make an eventual agreement seem like a triumph.

The stakes are high. The referendum will not only determine Britain’s future role in world trade and affairs, but also shape the European Union, which has struggled to maintain unity over migration and financial crises, by ripping away its second-largest economy and one of its two main military powers.

Some Eurosceptics described the talks as “trivial”.

“What the government is asking for from the EU is trivial. These proposals will not take back control from the EU,” said Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, one campaign lobbying for Britain to exit the European Union.

“These gimmicks have been ignored by the EU before and will be ignored again as they will not be in the EU treaty.”

Britain’s influential press, like the population, are split over the EU debate.

While the Daily Mail, Britain’s second best-selling newspaper, asked on its front page: “Is that it then, Mr Cameron?”, the right-wing broadsheet, the Telegraph, has been more supportive of Cameron’s renegotiation.

But perhaps more telling were the words of Britain’s most powerful media owner, Rupert Murdoch, on Twitter: “UK-EU negotiations meaningless without complete control of borders.”

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