It will be hard for officials renegotiating Britain’s EU membership to meet a goal of having a framework ready for discussion at a regional summit next month, a senior EU official involved in the talks said on Wednesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to win concessions from other leaders ahead of a referendum on British membership promised by the end of 2017.
With opinion polls showing Britain sharply divided over whether to stay or leave, the outcome of the vote will determine the country’s future role on the global stage as well as shaping the European Union, which has struggled to maintain unity over migration and financial crises.
The British government wants at least the bulk of a deal to be ready for European Union leaders to endorse at their next meeting on Dec. 17-18, but officials and diplomats fear there may not even be a narrowing of differences by then.
Meeting that target date would be difficult, Jonathan Faull, the EU executive’s point man in negotiations between Britain and its partners, told an Irish parliamentary committee meeting.
He noted “the complexity of some of these issues and the relatively recent date on which the Prime Minister sent his (renegotiation) letter,” citing in particular a disagreement over welfare payments for foreign workers.
The hope was that agreement would be reached by the following summit in February at the latest, allowing Cameron to then announce the referendum date. “That gives us a few more weeks to work on these very tricky issues,” Faull said.
A British citizen and veteran EU administrator, Faull was appointed by EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker in June to head a task force dealing with the reforms demanded by Cameron.
Asked if a compromise could be found on Britain’s wish to be excluded from the principle of “ever closer union”, Faull said: “I don’t think that’s impossible.”
Similarly, compromise should be possible on justice issues and the principle of “subsidiarity”, or devolving more decision-making to member states’ parliaments.
Faull said a proposal that people coming to Britain from the EU must live in the country for four years before qualifying for state benefits would be the most difficult aspect of the talks.
“That looks very like discrimination (to some people), so poses very serious problems under single market rules,” Faull said at a second event hosted by an EU think tank.
Faull said the European Commission did not have a ‘Plan B’ if Britain voted to leave the EU. “(But) we are working hard to try to make sure it doesn’t happen… There is no doubt that it would have very considerable consequences for our continent and for our union,” he said.