BRUSSELS (Reuters) - David Cameron is not the best liked European leader in Brussels, yet as he seeks changes in the EU to persuade Britons they should stay in, he will not lack offers of friendship
They will come from presidents and fellow prime ministers across the 28-nation European Union and its institutions, none of whom wants to lose the economic, geopolitical and military clout Britain brings to the bloc, however exasperating many find its traditional resistance to closer EU integration.
Those allies may press Cameron to put a deal to voters before his self-imposed 2017 deadline for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. They hope his re-election last week helps him to face down eurosceptics in his party and end uncertainty about the bloc’s future before the French and Germans go to the polls that year.
Cameron’s lead negotiator, finance minister George Osborne, came to Brussels on Tuesday promising to improve relations with Europe: “We go into the negotiations aiming to be constructive and engaged,” he said. “But also resolute and firm.”
Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and fellow conservative who chairs summits of EU leaders, has said he shares many of Cameron’s concerns. He will play a crucial role in forging consensus in the European Council on reforms.
“Brussels will have to be open minded and listen to Cameron,” former Swedish premier Carl Bildt told Reuters. “Substantive accord is needed and Tusk is the key person here.”
Jean-Claude Juncker has more cause than most to feel less than warm. Last year, Cameron unsuccessfully tried to stop him becoming president of the European Commission, the EU executive which will have to propose and draft legislation London may want.
But even if Juncker cannot forget deeply personal attacks in the British press, he has been forgiving and offers Britain a “fair deal”, albeit without major changes to the EU treaty.
Two of his commissioners, Frans Timmermans and Jonathan Hill, will figure as Cameron tries to make good on promises to cut EU red tape, assert national sovereignty, ensure British access to European markets including the euro zone and address Britons’ concerns about immigration from poorer member states.
Timmermans, Juncker’s deputy, is a former Dutch foreign minister, partly educated at an English school. He shares many of his compatriots’ sympathies for Britain’s free-trading, anti-ideological approach to the EU’s common market.
He is already in charge of a programme to slash EU lawmaking, push power back to states and streamline management.
“The Timmermans agenda is an absolute gift for Cameron,” said Michael Emerson, a long-time Commission official and EU diplomat now at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
Timmermans is already working on possible legislation to prevent abuse of welfare systems by migrants, a concern not just of Britain but notably also in Germany and the Netherlands. Hill, an old confidant of Cameron, is Britain’s EU commissioner, nominated by him and given the finance portfolio by Juncker.
He is charged with clearing remaining national barriers to a single market in financial services, one of several initiatives that Cameron can cite to make a case for staying inside the free trade bloc.
Hill has charmed Brussels with a style that contrasts to local perceptions of Cameron as prickly and too fearful of London’s eurosceptic press. A former lobbyist, Hill sees himself as a mediator between friends - “interpreting Brussels to Britain, and Britain to Brussels”, as he told Reuters last month.
Cameron can do little against the will of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Their relationship is not visibly warm; since Cameron quit the European Parliament’s centre-right bloc in 2009, his Conservative party sits with her German eurosceptic opponents, adding to a view of Cameron as isolated in Europe.
But Merkel also believes, along with French President Francois Hollande, that a Union without Britain would be greatly diminished. A Socialist, Hollande is no natural Cameron ally but the EU’s two main military powers are closely aligned. And France, like other member states, fears that without Britain, Berlin’s domination of the bloc would only grow.
Like Juncker, Hollande and Merkel have made clear Cameron cannot expect to limit basic rights to free movement by workers. This would require treaty changes that Hollande, for one, would need to put to a referendum. And he doubts that he would secure the backing of the French electorate.
Around the summit table, Cameron can look to traditional Nordic, Dutch and Irish friends, and a certain loyalty among eastern Europeans who recall London’s drive to bring them into the EU and who see Britain’s ties to the United States as part of their bulwark against Russia.
There are no obviously hostile figures although leaders in the ex-Communist east, as well as Tusk himself, will fight any move their voters would see as limiting their right to move.
For Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of legal services for the European Council, much can be achieved by modest legislative measures. Given the lack of time, the best Cameron might get on bigger reforms could be a promise of treaty changes later.
“You need to make allies,” Piris said. “And you need to work with the calendar,” he added, saying Cameron had every interest in holding a referendum before French elections in April 2017.
He noted the rotating presidency of ministerial councils would be held from July by EU veterans from Juncker’s Luxembourg, followed by Britain’s Dutch friends from January. “That’s a happy coincidence,” Piris said. “Cameron should go for this quickly. It won’t get easier.”
Additional reporting by Alistair Scrutton in Stockholm; editing by David Stamp