Leaders engage in EU reform talks at European Council

Although David Cameron and Donald Tusk have accepted that a deal will not be reached this year, it is now hoped that these discussions will pave the way for an agreement in February.

By Erik Tate

17 Dec 2015

Today and tomorrow European heads of state and government meet in Brussels to discuss, among other things, the United Kingdom's wish list for EU reform, ahead of its referendum on EU membership scheduled before the end of 2017.

Speaking ahead of European Council, Syed Kamall, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, argued that the majority of the UK’s requests “could be accommodated relatively easily”. He also hoped that this process will "act as a catalyst for EU wide reforms."

Those that are more controversial, namely the idea of restricting in-work benefits and social housing to EU workers, will be discussed early in the meeting. “The stakes are so high that we cannot escape a serious debate with no taboos”, said Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, in his invitation letter to the leaders.

This meeting follows on from the open letter sent by Tusk last week concerning the state of play of the points outlined by David Cameron in November. 

In this he recognised the possibility of establishing a mechanism to prevent discrimination against non-eurozone countries, without turning this into a veto right, and said that there is wide agreement that the "ever closer union among the peoples" allows for various paths of integration for different countries. He added that “those that want to deepen integration can move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further”.

On competitiveness, Tusk said that “everybody agrees on the need to further work on better regulation and on lessening the burdens on business while maintaining high standards”. This was supported by the agreement recently reached on Inter-Institutional Agreement on Better Regulation, which seeks to reduce the regulatory burden of EU legislation.

The European Commission’s recent proposals to modernise online content and copyright rules, as part of its Digital Single Market Strategy, were also welcomed by the UK government. Cameron argued that these show how UK leadership “can secure a flexible single market that works for EU consumers and businesses.”

However, the “most delicate” issue of social benefits and the free movement of persons will require a “substantial political debate”, Tusk explained. He said that while there are good prospects for agreeing on ways to fight abuses and find some reforms, there is “no consensus” on the request that people coming to Britain from the EU must live there and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing.

In the run up to the meeting, he said that they are still “far from an agreement on several topics” even though progress has been made. Despite the desire from both sides to reach an early deal, it is now hoped that these discussions will pave the way for an agreement in February.


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