LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union is less pressing than some other issues the bloc is facing but the country still hopes to reach a deal in February, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Tuesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has promised to reform Britain’s EU ties ahead of a membership referendum due by the end of 2017, has said he hopes to get an agreement at a Feb. 18-19 meeting of EU leaders but could wait longer in order to clinch the “right deal”.
“Unfortunately some of the other things are very much real-time challenges for the European Union whereas this agenda is one that can be dealt with in slightly slower time,” Hammond told a committee of lawmakers from parliament’s upper house.
“I think it would be inappropriate of us, and it would also be unwise, of us to try and push our agenda ahead of other things which the other EU member states will see as being pressingly urgent.”
Hammond did not specify which issues he had in mind but the 28-nation EU is wrestling with the biggest migrant crisis since World War Two, with more than one million refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and beyond arriving in Europe last year.
The countries of the euro zone are also still far from completing fiscal, banking and other reforms they hope will put a definitive end to their years-old sovereign debt crisis.
Hammond said it would be possible to hold a referendum in June if a deal were reached in February, adding that the government had not done any contingency work in the event of a British vote to leave the bloc.
“This will not be a quick, certainly not an immediate, probably not a quick, process. And for that reason the government has not found it necessary to do any contingency work in this area,” he said.
“We would expect there to be a period of certainly years during which these discussions would take place.”
Recent opinion polls show Britons who have already decided how they will vote are almost evenly split between those wanting to remain in the bloc and those wanting to leave.
Cameron, whose ruling Conservative Party is deeply divided over the issue, says he wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU.
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and William James, editing by Gareth Jones