Children – and even some ‘grown up children’ – could be forgiven for thinking that a scary monster may lurk in the big, hidden house at the end of the long, straight drive nestled in the Chiltern Hills. Or may be it’s a Big Giant – friendly or otherwise – who is coming to call this evening?
Chequers is the country-house retreat of the British Prime Minister – and it lies just a stone’s throw from the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden, the enchanting village that was home to the late children’s author, Roald Dahl.
So when the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, comes to dinner this evening, which part will he be playing? And just how welcoming will his host really be?
With all lights now set to green for the UK’s In/Out referendum on its EU membership, this week sees what to all intents and purposes looks like the official start of the national – and European – debate about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union: a sort of Great British Ref-Off.
Many questions still hang in the air.
- When will it be?
- Which UK residents will be allowed to vote?
- Will 16 and 17 year olds be allowed to vote (unlikely)?
- What will the actual question be?
- And most crucially of all, what exactly will the British public be voting for?
In other words, as David Cameron begins his frantic year or so of negotiations, what will be the end result that he’ll present to the British electorate? He is on record as saying that if he doesn’t get what he is looking for, he’ll actively campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
Lord Hill, Britain’s Commissioner in Brussels, this weekend presented his case for why the UK should stay in the EU, saying that the UK’s membership had had a positive effect on the economy, jobs and the standard of living.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Owen Paterson – Britain’s former Secretary of State for the Environment – was today pushed by Mark Mardell on BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme as to whether there was anything the Prime Minister could negotiate that would prompt him to support Britain remaining in the EU. He confirmed that he is firmly of the belief that Britain would be better off ‘out’, and thus able to resume what he sees as its more senior role in the world.
Brussels insiders say David Cameron still has some way to go to improve his relationship with Jean-Claude Juncker. Last year Mr Cameron publicly campaigned for Mr Juncker – the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and the chairman of the Eurogroup – not to become the European Commission President. And last week there was yet another awkward moment at a leaders’ summit in Latvia when Mr Juncker’s attempt to ‘high-five’ the Prime Minister fell cringingly flat.
Over dinner this evening at Chequers it’s understood the two leaders will discuss how the negotiations might proceed and how best to deal with the UK’s concerns. (Is this a taster menu or a full-blown banquet?!)
David Cameron was all but forced into this situation to keep on-board his euro-sceptic backbenchers and to attempt to win back supporters who defected to UKIP.
The prime minister seems to be looking, among other things, for the following:
- restrictions on welfare payments to EU migrants;
- an exemption for the UK on so-called ‘ever closer union’, a key plank of EU ideals;
- restrictions on freedom of movement for EU citizens;
- less red tape;
- assurances that the Euro-group of countries will not introduce policies that could disadvantage non-Euro countries like the UK;
- and to limit the EU’s influence on the UK justice system.
Lawyers seem divided on whether some of these changes would require a change in the EU’s treaties. But Reuters recently quoted a Downing Street spokesman as saying that the prime minister was indeed looking for treaty change. If he truly holds out for this, the situation looks almost impossible. This is because in order to ratify such changes, member states like Ireland – and probably others as well – would have to put them to a national referendum too. Even if there were an appetite for this – which there definitely is not – it would take years to organise, and even longer for member states to ratify the changes. In other words, there is no hope of achieving actual treaty change before 2017. As Charles Grant, the Director of the Centre for European Reform, says, “if Cameron tries to make fundamental changes to the way the EU works, he will fail”.
At heart, the key leaders across the EU seem keen to keep the UK in the EU – but not at any price.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is known to be keen to do all she reasonably can to keep Britain in the Union; President François Hollande of France is not keen on Britain’s piecemeal approach to Europe, but quietly fears the loss of such a key member of the Union; and the new Commission in Brussels – in the guise of the multi-lingual Vice President, Frans Timmermans – has been vocal in its support for cutting red tape.
Other member states have said they too would like some degree of reform; but most oppose reforms that would discriminate against EU migrants, potentially turning them into second-class citizens in other member states.
This is an issue that was scarcely touched upon during the UK general election earlier this month, but it is now one that is centre stage and will take up much of the British government’s time in the coming months.
We shall perhaps learn in the coming hours if the first foray has – in the spirit of Roald Dahl – been either Big and Friendly; or more Wonka wonkey.