David Cameron’s hopes of wooing UKIP supporters to vote Conservative in May have been dealt a hammer blow by Brussels.
The Tory leader was desperate to be seen as the only real option for securing a renegotiated relationship with the European Union and of holding a referendum on membership by 2017 as he fights to secure a majority for his party in Westminster.
The President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, has ruled out any treaty negotiations with Britain until 2019 – two years after the promised referendum.
A source close to the former Luxembourg Prime Minister told The Times there was no prospect of formal plans for treaty change until the end of 2019, with negotiations beginning the following year, the year of the next general election in Britain.
“No treaty change proposals are envisaged until after November 2019, the end of Mr Juncker’s mandate as president of the commission,” an official said.
There is no love lost between Mr Cameron and Mr Juncker, with the former trying to block the federalist from the top job in Brussels. But Juncker’s decision could well be cutting off his nose to spite his face, since the Conservatives could face holding a vote on EU membership without any promised reforms, including on benefits for immigrants and the membership fees the country pays.
The Conservative manifesto, launched yesterday in Swindon, includes a promise to hold “an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017”.
Without significant treaty changes, Whitehall officials have raised the idea of a “protocol” promising amendments at a future date, possibly even as far away as 2025 when the legal documents will be examined and updated. But even this would require unanimity in the Council of Ministers, something net recipients of EU cash and less free market countries will allow to happen.
Speaking in Wiltshire, the prime minister told reporters that Britain was “on the brink of something special” as he launched the manifesto, promising a return to “the good life”.
In another attempt to win UKIP voters over, he said Mr Farage’s supporters had no choice but to vote Conservative if they wanted to avoid the “horror” of a Labour/SNP coalition.
However in two key target seats for Farage’s party – Great Grimsby and Rotherham, it is only UKIP who could beat Labour, meaning that Conservative voters should support Labour’s main rival if they too wanted to avoid such “horror”.
The 2015 manifesto demands two changes to the Lisbon Treaty, the renamed European Constitution, although Tory backbenchers would want more.
“We want national parliaments to be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation,” the manifesto says. “And we want an end to our commitment to ‘ever closer union’ as enshrined in the treaty to which every country has to sign up.”
It backs up Mr Cameron’s earlier demand for “proper, full-on, treaty change” for how Europe is governed which would then be put to a vote. He had hoped that the eurozone crisis would play into his hands in expediting renegotiation. However, he will be told at a Brussels summit in June that the other European leaders will not be accepting his timetable.
The news comes as Nigel Farage launches the UKIP manifesto in the party’s target seat of Thurrock where Mr Farage is going to make a “passing reference” to the setback for Mr Cameron.
Speaking to Breitbart London, a source said the comments by Mr Juncker were “helpful” but that they were going to be concentrating on the key policies in their manifesto.