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David Cameron scrambles to beef up puny EU deal
  |Wed, 10 February 2016|Deplomacy| Page Views : 632

  David Cameron is scrambling to beef up his EU renegotiation deal after it received an overwhelmingly negative reception in Parliament and the media, sources close to the negotiation have told The Telegraph.

With senior cabinet figures including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove now publicly wavering over whether they can back the deal as it stands, UK negotiators are now pushing for a strengthening of the so-called “emergency brake” on paying benefits to EU workers.

The demands include a significant increase in the duration of the ‘stop’ on paying in-work benefits which the current deals says will last “up to four years”, with the possibility of extending the brake for a number of years still to be decided.

UK negotiators want the emergency brake remain in force significantly beyond four years or until the “excessive pressure” on social and welfare services that triggered the brake has been fully resolved – which could mean indefinitely.

“There will be some things that we want to go back and have a look at because we think we can get a better deal,” the source said. As Downing Street uses the domestic backlash against the deal to grind out further concessions, senior EU sources have indicated that there is indeed wiggle-room for Mr Cameron to improve the terms – but only within narrow limits.

The UK also wants to strike out a key provision of the draft deal that says EU workers must be paid benefits on a sliding scale once they have done a year in work, even after the “emergency brake” on benefits has been pulled. “The phasing of the welfare brake doesn’t look good and might need some attention,” the source confirmed, “there is a need to get closer to a full denial of benefits for the whole four-year period, not a phasing-in of benefits from year one.”

This may be a tall order for Britain since a second EU diplomatic source with knowledge of Poland’s position said Warsaw is still demanding that the benefits brake must not discriminate against EU workers more than non-EU workers, and that Poles who contribute taxes must receive full benefits.

It is understood that Downing Street has been taken aback by the furious reception given to the deal which – while always limited – they had deemed creditable for Mr Cameron’s ‘wins’ on child benefits, the end of ‘ever closer union’ and the advent of a ‘red card’ system to block EU laws. Officials do not expect improvements to the red card system, which will require just over half of national parliaments to block legislation, since it was agreed on British terms; however nor do they expect opposition to the system in the final negotiations.

Negotiations over the deal are intensifying this week, with a final meeting of EU lawyers and officials – so-called “sherpas” – planned for this Thursday, the last major meeting before the draft is submitted to European Council meeting on February 18-19.

A first meeting of EU officials last week to discuss the deal revealed broad acceptance of the terms by Poland, Hungary and other eastern European states, but new concerns from Romania and Bulgaria on labour market restriction. Southern European states like Spain and Portugal whose economies are in the doldrums after the financial crisis and whose citizens increasingly go abroad in the EU to work, are also understood to be scrutinising the benefits brake very closely.

With several crucial details expected still be negotiated ‘on the night’, officials both in Brussels, London and other EU capitals are not ruling out a breakdown in talks, with a possible emergency Council in March. However, all sides are continuing to talk about their preference for a June referendum, which would require a final deal to be approved in the first week of March in order to leave the door open to a June 23 vote.

But even as Downing Street seeks to boost the package, experts have begun casting doubts on the legality of the “emergency brake” on welfare which potentially discriminates against EU workers and could therefore be open to challenges in the European Court of Justice. The European Commission remains convinced that the British ‘brake’ is so narrowly defined that it does not require treaty change but can be achieved by amending existing regulations, however that confidence is not universally shared.

Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, a pro-EU think-tank, is among those warning that unless Mr Cameron can have the brake codified in the treaties it will be open to challenge, potentially muddying the waters of any referendum campaign.

“Getting treaty change on the in-work benefits brake is crucial for Cameron because he will almost certainly be challenged before the European Court of Justice on this, given that some will claim it is discriminatory. He needs treaty change and the Poles are pivotal on this,” he said. In another key area, that of ‘safeguards’ to stop eurozone states using their in-built majority to gang up on non-euro members like Britain – a major demand of George Osborne, the chancellor – the fight is also on toughen the deal. Debate is focussed on the operation of another “emergency brake” that would force eurozone countries to review objectionable legislation, but it is not clear exactly how many non-euro states would be needed to force a reconsideration by EU heads of state.

Britain wants only one country to be able to trigger the brake, a request still being resisted by France and Germany, but backed by Sweden and Denmark who the UK hope to enlist to win what is expected to be a key battleground at the February summit.

By Peter Foster






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